Friday 21 May 2010

Forgotten Book - Murder at Shots Hall

The reissuing of good detective stories that have long been out of print is always a cause for rejoicing, and Tom and Enid Schantz’s Rue Morgue Press deserves special praise for reviving a number of very obscure titles, including the two detective novels written by Maureen Sarsfield.

I must confess that I had never heard of her, but Sarsfield was a British writer active for just a few years shortly after the Second World War; she also published a mainstream novel and (as Maureen Pretyman) children’s books. Even the Schantzes’ diligent researches have failed to turn up much information about her – or an explanation as to why, after a brief burst of energy, she disappeared from the scene as suddenly, and with as little fanfare, as she had arrived. As the Schantzes say: ‘Whether she died young, commenced her short career at an advanced age or simply grew tired of the writing life is unknown.’

On the evidence of this, her first book, previously and rather more evocatively titled Green December Fills the Graveyard, she was brimming with youthful exuberance. The narrative, set in a bombed Sussed manor house and the local village, and featuring Inspector Lane Parry of Scotland Yard, fizzes from start to finish. In rather less than 200 pages there are three murders and a near-fatal poisoning together with neat touches aplenty. The victims all have connections with Shots Hall and its owner, the sculptress Flikka Ashley. Flikka is much admired by Parry as well as a number of men in the village, but she is an enigmatic character – at times, I thought, maddeningly so. Sarsfield gives the impression of being more captivated by Flikka than by her plot or by some of the subordinate characters who, although colourful, are too lightly sketched to be credible suspects.

I found the explanation for the crimes less than wholly convincing and, taken as a whole, this novel bears the hallmarks of a talented but inexperienced writer. With firm editorial guidance she might have developed into a significant contributor to the genre, but it was not to be. I would not go as far as the publishers in claiming that she stands ‘in the front rank of the second raters’, but they are to be congratulated on rescuing Sarsfield’s books (the second Lane Parry novel is Murder at Beechlands), which are well worth a fresh airing. Meanwhile, the mystery of what happened to the author is a puzzle to intrigue any whodunit fan.


Anonymous said...

Martin - Thanks for this interesting post. For me, this was an introdcution to Sarsfield, as I hadn't heard of her work before. I'm glad you've made me aware of it.

George said...

This sounds like another book I'll have to track down. I sometimes find British books in Canada at reasonable prices.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. It certainly was very obscure, but less so now thanks to Rue Morgue.