Friday, 12 February 2016

Forgotten Books - Death's Darkest Face

My Forgotten Book for today is a novel I received for review no less than 25 years ago. It was written by one of my favourite crime novelists at that time,and I very much enjoyed it. A couple of years later, I had the pleasure of meeting the author a couple of times, and he duly inscribed the book to me. Re-reading it recently, having forgotten pretty much all the detail of the mystery, I was struck once again by the intelligence and unfussy elegance of the writing. Yet it's a book that has seldom been discussed, and really does seem to be forgotten. The title is Death's Darkest Face, and the author Julian  Symons.

The structure of the story is unusual, and Symons takes the very bold step of introducing himself into the story, at the start and at the end. He explains how he came into the possession of a manuscript written by an actor whom he knew called Geoffrey Elder. What follows is an ingenious narrative with an unorthodox structure. Symons is writing in the present, i.e. the end of the Eighties, while Geoffrey is writing in the Sixties about events that mostly took place in the Thirties, and which he followed up  three decades later.

Geoffrey is prompted to become an amateur detective by the intrusion into his life of a would-be biographer of a Thirties poet called Hugo Headley. Headley disappeared mysteriously, and it was never clear whether he had died or faked his own death and fled to escape his creditors. Could it be that, rather than committing suicide, he was murdered? Geoffrey has a personal reason to find out more.

Some of the elements of the story are quite melodramatic,but the telling of the story is very considered, which for some readers may be a drawback. It's not breathless, action-packed tale, and the large cast of characters also means that you have to pay attention from start to finish. But it's worth the effort. This really is an under-estimated novel, and in a very clever finale, we are offered a fresh way of looking at things which reminds me strongly of the books of Anthony Berkeley, whom Symons (like me) greatly admired, and who was an expert in offering multiple solutions to a mystery.  

3 comments:

Fiona said...

Symons takes the very bold step of introducing himself into the story, at the start and at the end.

Nevil Shute did a similar thing in one of his wartime books, but although I've scoured my collection and looked at all the Kindle sample chapters on Amazon I can't track it down :( At the start, a scientist is waiting to go in to a meeting at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, and sees an unimposing man who is the story's leading character. Right at the end of the book the scientist is called in to the meeting and is told "I'll tell you that chap's story one day" (or words to that effect).

Just another piece of totally irrelevant trivia for you, Martin, as I haven't read Symond's book so cannot comment on it.

Ted Lee said...

This was the fourth Symons book I read back in April of 1992. The other ones I had read were from the 1970's or earlier. I only thing I remember now about this book was how shocked I was at how sexually explicit it was.

Steve Lewis said...

I haven't read anything by Symons in a long time, maybe 40 years. This may be the first time I've read anything about this one, and you make it sound very interesting. I just might go looking for it. Thanks!