At one point yesterday, the British Library edition of Anthony Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case was jostling with Dan Brown, Philip Pullman and Irvine Welsh in the top 15 Amazon UK Kindle bestsellers list (and in fact this morning it is #12). I think we can safely say that it's no longer a forgotten book. Who, not so long ago, would have foreseen such a revival of interest in Golden Age fiction? Well, today, I'm going to talk about one of Berkeley's colleagues in the Detection Club post-war.
Douglas G. Browne was an interesting writer who combined the writing of detective novels with ventures into true crime - for instance, he co-authored a biography of the legendary pathologist, Sir Bernard Spilsbury. I like his work, because even though his novels are sometimes flawed, he was apt to come up with intriguing ideas. He wasn't in Berkeley's class, but then, few Golden Age writers were..
Too Many Cousins is a case in point. It was published in 1946, but is set towards the end of the war, and it begins splendidly. Harvey Tuke, Browne's regular amateur sleuth, who works in the Department of Public Prosecutions, meets a chap called Parmiter at his club. Parmiter is a professional obituarist. Now I've always found the art of obituary writing very interesting, and I've often toyed with the idea of writing about an obituarist, though I've never got round to it. But recently I got to k now a professional obituary writer, and you never know, I may get round to it one day. Meanwhile, Parmiter's story got me hooked.
He tells Tuke about a series of deaths in the same family that have come to his attention. Each case appears to involve a fatal accident. Yet can it really be coincidence? When Tuke finds that the three people who were died were among six cousins who are in line for a life-changing inheritance, his curiosity is aroused. It appears that one of the surviving cousins has been the victim of an attempted murder, but can we believe what she says? Might she be trying to divert suspicion from herself?
I felt that, once the main characters were introduced, the book faltered somewhat. Never mind too many cousins, there were too few suspects. However, it's all wrapped up quite neatly, and Tuke explains all to Parmiter. But there is still one more twist - and a very pleasing one - to come. All in all, a decent, swift read. My copy, I should add, is rather charmingly inscribed by Browne - "because it is the first for six years." He also corrects in his hand a mistake made on the very first page of the book. I can imagine just how he felt about that. One works hard on a book, and still comes back to the finished version, and finds faults. It happens to me all the time, and I suspect quite a few other writers know the feeling...