Friday 17 July 2015

Forgotten Book - Background for Murder

Today, my Forgotten Book comes from another author whose reputation owed much to the advocacy of Julian Symons in Bloody Murder. Shelley Smith was a writer he greatly admired, and his enthusiasm prompted me to read her avidly in my younger days. Suffice to say that I shared his opinion about the excellence and variety of her writing. An Afternoon to Kill, in particular, is a real tour de force.

Background for Murder was her very first book, published in 1942, and I've only recently tracked it down and read it. Whilst Smith later developed into an accomplished writer of psychological suspense, this is a genuine whodunit, with a dizzying list of suspects. But she was clearly also trying to update the classic form. The story is narrated by Jacob Chaos, a private eye who is called in (rather improbably, to be honest) by Scotland Yard, to solve a baffling murder mystery which has the local police stumped. There's a distant influence of Philip Marlowe here, although Chaos is not a tough guy, and the setting is much more genteel than the mean streets of Chandlertown.

The setting is, in fact, a hospital for the mentally ill, and one of the interesting features of the book when read today is how attitudes towards the mentally ill have changed in the last seventy odd years. They've changed markedly for the better, although in my opinion there's still a long way to go. But it seems to me that this book was quite 'progressive' in its attitudes - by the standards of the Forties. Smith was a young writer, and the plot touches on issues such as abortion and a key character who is described as "sexually gay" (I discovered that this meant the chap in question was heterosexual but promiscuous.)

The author's youth and inexperience are evident in the liveliness of the story and also one or two flaws. Overall, though, it's a very good debut, although Chaos only appeared in one more book, as Smith rapidly moved away from whodunits. Smith's real name was Nancy Hermione Bodington, nee Courlander. She wrote vividly, and it's no surprise that she later became involved in film work - she was one of those who worked on the screenplay of that successful movie Tiger Bay. Her career as a crime writer rather petered out in the Seventies, but Symons was right. She was a fine crime novelist.


Unknown said...

Thanks for introducing me to a "new" name in crime fiction. I shall BOLO for this forgotten book, but I suspect it will be hard to find. Again, thanks!

J F Norris said...

This one has slipped out of my fingers several times. Tried three times to win a copy on eBay, but I can never win when competing with UK buyers when bidding on a UK seller offered book. It's the shipping I have to keep in mind every time. One of these days I'll get a copy. I did manage to get a copy of HE DIED OF MURDER! (such a nonsensical title), but it's such a grubby malodorous copy I doubt I'll ever finish reading it. Sends me into sneezing fits after about five minutes of reading.

Kacper said...

I have read one of Smith's books, Come and Be Killed!, which I liked a fair bit but not enough to feel compelled to seek out more, though I picked up a few copies of her other books since. This one sounds quite intriguing!

(Also, many apologies for not having said so earlier, but my warmest congratulations on the Detection Club presidency!)

Clothes In Books said...

I read Afternoon to Kill long ago (was it one of those Crime Club special editions they produced for an anniversary, maybe 50th?) and remember it as being very good - I must try to get hold of this one.

dfordoom said...

I can imagine a private eye named Johnny Chaos, or maybe Steve Chaos, but Jacob Chaos? Still, it's original and the book sounds like fun.