Friday, 8 July 2016
Forgotten Book - The Necessary Corpse
R.C. Woodthorpe is a writer I find intriguing. He burst on to the scene in the Thirties with successful books such as The Public School Murder, and his work demonstrates an ability to characterise well, and to amuse. He had a great interest in politics and social issues, and his novels reflect this. Unfortunately, The Necessary Corpse, first published in 1939, illustrates his shortcomings as a writer, as well as his strengths.
The story begins in lively fashion. Quinton, a rich entrepreneur who has built up a highly successful retail empire, receives a letter threatening his life. He has arranged to meet Nicholas Slade for lunch, and Slade saves his life when someone tries to shoot him. (We are reminded that William Whiteley founder of the famous department store, was himself murdered.) Quinton and Slade take refuge with a group of "Progressive Thinker", and discover that Quinton's right-hand woman is actually a freelance journalist with left wing and anti-capitalist views. The complications increase as it becomes clear that a trio of American gangsters are out to murder Quinton, and they won't be satisfied until he is dead. He could fake his death, yes, but how to provide "the necessary corpse"?
This is not a detective story but a light thriller, and - as usual with Woodthorpe - the emphasis is more on comedy with a political edge than on plot. Whenever I read a Golden Age story in which American gangsters make an appearance, I cringe, since they offer a kind of reverse kite mark, an indication that the book won't have even a pretence of realism. This was Woodthorpe's first published novel for four years, and I wonder if the gap arose because he struggled to find a good idea for a plot.
Slade, a sleuthing novelist who made an interesting debut in Silence of a Purple Shirt, seems rather subdued here, and it is not really a surprise that he never appeared in another novel. Woodthorpe is more interested in the relationship between Quinton and his feisty sidekick. There are some good lines, not least about journalism, but overall the novel is a disappointment. Woodthorpe's wit and intelligence don't compensate for the weakness of the story.