A number of crime writers have, over the years, made effective use of the sinister qualities of some animals. Stories set in a zoo are, however, pretty rare, Freeman Wills Crofts' Antidote to Venom excepted. Mind you, some years ago, I planned out a short story with just such a background, after undertaking a behind-the-scenes tour of Chester Zoo; that story never got written, due to lack of time, and one of these days I may return to it. These musings are prompted by my latest foray into the works of that interesting crime writer Ethel Lina White, and her penultimate novel.
The book in question is The Man Who Loved Lions, and it was published in 1943, the year before White's death. In the US it was known as The Man Who Was Not There, which although not a terrible title isn't quite as evocative; I'm puzzled as to why it was felt the change was desirable. Anyway, the set-up of the story is tantalising and full of promise.
Ann Sherborn has recently returned to Britain after years abroad. Seven years earlier, at the age of sixteen, she was a member of a group of seven youngish people who dubbed themselves "The Sullied Souls". The leader of the group, Richard, proposed that seven years later, they should hold a reunion at "Ganges", the home of his uncle (who would, he expected, be dead by then). Richard was always an unpleasant character, but Ann was in love with another member of the group, Stephen, so she heads for Ganges in the hope that he will show up there too.
It turns out that Richard's uncle is still very much alive. And he has created his own private zoo at Ganges: he is the man who loves lions. Richard is as odious as ever, and while one or two other people present at Ganges are also unappealing - but Stephen, alas, is not there.
The presence of wild animals in the grounds contributes to several atmospheric scenes. Yet I found this book rather frustrating. The notion of the private zoo has huge potential, as did the reunion concept, but I didn't think that the storyline as a whole lived up to its initial promise. In particular, the bickering between some of the characters was rather tedious. All in all, after a good start, the novel fails to deliver. I have to rate it as a disappointment.