Friday, 28 February 2020

Forgotten Book - Dance for a Dead Uncle

I first became aware of Charles Ashton's work when I was offered the chance to buy an inscribed copy of his last novel, Dance for a Dead Uncle, from the estate of the late Bob Adey. I discovered that it was a locked room mystery, one of three by this author catalogued in Bob's Locked Room Murders. So I took the plunge and bought it, reasoning (rightly or wrongly) that I'd never get a similar chance again.

It's fair to say that Ashton was a fairly obscure writer even in his own lifetime, though in recent times Pietro dePalma and John Norris (two good judges) have heaped praised on his work. He must have been very pleased when his debut novel, Murder in Make-Up, received a pretty complimentary review from Dorothy L. Sayers in the Sunday Times in early 1935. She felt it was "agreeably written"and gave "considerable promise of good work to come". The book featured Jack Atherley, who became a series character, and it also benefited from Ashton's knowledge of the film world; he'd appeared in a considerable number of movies himself before the coming of the talkies seems to have put paid to his career on the silver screen.

Dance for a Dead Uncle was his last novel. It appeared in 1948, when he was 64 (he did, however, live until 1968). I think it's fair to say that by the time this book appeared, his approach to the genre belonged to the past. It's very much in the Golden Age style and not just because of the impossible crime plot. Atherley doesn't appear; the detecting is done by a likeable but lightly sketched Scotland Yard man.

But judged as a Golden Age story, it's not at all bad, in a quiet, undemonstrative way. If, for instance, you like John Bude, you'll probably enjoy this one. The set-up is intriguing, as a deceased spiritualist asks two sceptical nephews to take part in a rather odd, not to say unlikely, arrangement in a locked room where his coffin is to be found. You've guessed it - one of the nephews is duly murdered. But how was it done, by whom, and why? I didn't figure out the answers to these questions, and although the story lacks the atmospheric vigour of John Dickson Carr, it's quite a good example of the classic locked room mystery. I can see why Bob tracked down a copy and kept in his wonderful collection.

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