Friday, 25 November 2016

Forgotten Book - Man with a Calico Face


I've written here previously about my enthusiasm for the crime fiction of Shelley Smith, the pen-name of Nancy Bodington, nee Courlander. That interest was originally fired by Julian Symons, a long-time admirer of her work, who heaped praise on her in Bloody Murder, and subsequently shepherded that brilliant novel An Afternoon to Kill back into print in a series of Collins Crime Club reissues.

Man with a Calico Face is a fairly early book, first published in 1951 and it's hardly ever been mentioned on the internet. I did, however, find a link to a negative contemporary critique in Kirkus Reviews, which moans about the unpleasant nature of the characters. This is a complaint often made about the books of Francis Iles, whom Symons and I both admire, and although there is a grain of truth in the complaint, I think it's overdone in relation to both Iles and Smith. Like Symons, I think that Smith's work occasionally betrays Iles' influence, and that is especially true of the final twist in this novel.

At first, I have to admit, I was underwhelmed by the story. An attractive wife and mother is found dead at the bottom of the stairs. The body is discovered by a young man who has nursed an unrequited passion for her, and her large house is occupied by a number of people who might be described as hangers-on. There is no sign of her husband. How has she come to die? The seasoned mystery reader might have a good idea, but the seasoned mystery reader might well turn out to be wrong, because Smith was a very clever writer

The structure of this novel is extremely interesting. After the set-up section, there is a section which delves into the past, before we come back up to date again. This is the same structure that Henry Wade used in the masterly Lonely Magdalen, and although I don't think this book is as good as that one, it's certainly intriguing, and after a slow start builds to a highly dramatic and ironic climax. And who is "the man with a calico face"? We don't find out for a long time, but the explanation rather pleased me. Not Smith's best book, for sure, but definitely worth a read..

12 comments:

Kacper said...

UK ebook publishers Endeavour Press reprinted this one very recently (maybe a month ago) under the very pedestrian title "The Sting of Death."

I didn't altogether love this novel - I believe it's the second by Smith I've read - but I enjoyed it. I didn't find the characters especially unlikable, and in fact I found them compelling to read about. I felt particularly sympathetic towards Linda, whose naivete was very well done, I thought.

The final twist was clever, too. I believe I rated this one 3.75 stars (out of 5) in my journal, which is very solid.

Martin Edwards said...

Good to hear from you, Kacper. You're the first person I've come across who is familiar with this one. Trust you are still finding some more Pamela Barringtons to read!

Anonymous said...

"a negative contemporary critique in Kirkus Reviews, which moans about the unpleasant nature of the characters."

I always wonder about the families, friends and acquaintances who complain about unpleasant characters in books: is everyone they know so pleasant that they can't accept the existence - even fictional - of people who aren't or is everyone they know so unpleasant that they flee to novels for relief?

R. T. (Tim) Davis said...

The book cover art is enticing enough, but your posting/review is icing on the cake. (Forgive the hackneyed trope!) However, I doubt any library or used bookstore over here will have a copy. Still, I have issued myself a BOLO for it. Thanks!

Jonathan said...

Hi Martin, just wondering which of Shelley Smith's novels would you recommend? I have 'Background for Murder' and 'There is the House' on my Kindle...

Martin Edwards said...

Anon - I enjoyed your comment; nice point! I appreciate having likeable characters in a novel myself, but the nature of crime fiction is that quite a few of the people need to be unpleasant or potentially so.

Martin Edwards said...

Tim - I picked up my copy for a couple of quid in a second hand shop, though admittedly that was a while ago. It took me ages to get round to reading it, but I'm glad I did.

Martin Edwards said...

Jonathan - Come and Be Killed, The Lord Have Mercy, or An Afternoon to Kill

Jonathan said...

Thanks for the recommendations Martin. Would you say these three titles lean more towards thrillers, or do they operate in the Golden Age mystery vein?

Martin Edwards said...

The first two are sort of domestic suspense, the third is hard to categorise but excellent. None are thrillers, nor are they typical GA fare

Clothes In Books said...

I liked An Afternoon to Kill, but have never thought to read more by her - I think I read a Crime Club special anniversary edition. I'll have to see if I can find another.

Martin Edwards said...

Whilst Afternoon to Kill is my number one Smith book, Moira, all of them are well-written and a bit unusual. She was a class act.