Friday 24 February 2012

Forgotten Book - The Murderer of Sleep

My intermittent campaign to revive interest in Milward Kennedy continues! Today's Forgotten Book is one he published in 1935, probably at about the height of his fame (such as it was) in the Golden Age. It's called The Murderer of Sleep and boasts, in typical Kennedy fashion, two maps of distinct crime scenes: one is a hotel, where a theft and murder occur before the main action starts, and the other is the sleepy village of...erm... Sleep. The Macbeth inspired title clearly amused Kennedy.

It's an entertaining book which maintains a sprightly pace more or less throughout. I say 'more or less' because arguably the revelation of the main culprit's identity is delayed just a little too long. To my mind, it becomes pretty clear who the police are looking for, and there were moments towards the end when they just needed to get on with it all a bit quicker. This is, however, a relatively minor quibble. I did enjoy reading the book a good deal, even though I'm not sure I agree with those usually severe critics Barzun and Taylor who describe it as Kennedy's 'masterpiece'.

This novel illustrates a difficulty that all writers of whodunits face - it's one I'm conscious of myself, certainly. The question is: how many suspects should one have in the story? Too many, and the result is clutter, confusion and inadequate characterisation. Too few, and the puzzle is too easy to solve. Getting the right balance is one of the keys to success. This is what Agatha Christie did so well, so often.

Kennedy, I feel, errs on the side of having too few suspects here, and he could have done a bit more to probe the culprit's motivation. I think his difficulty arose from the rather unusual structure that he adopted in telling the story. This makes it a pleasing and fairly original read - and these are the strengths that appealed to me. But it does make a constant shifting of suspicion between candidates for the murderer rather difficult. As so often, Kennedy's ambition outstripped his achievement. But what I like about his was that he was an ambitious writer. Keen to vary the formula.

I have struggled in vain to find out any more about Kennedy's life than can be found in the usual places. If anyone knows any more about this interesting man - whose day job was as an international diplomat - I'd be keen to hear it.


J F Norris said...

Just two nights ago I discovered the Kennedy used to review mystery novels for the Sunday Times in the 1930s. One of the more obscure writers he championed was Norman Berrow, a minor writer who speciliazed in bizarre and impossible crimes. How's that?

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, John! I koow he continued to review right up to the mid 60s, but I've not been able to track down his reviews from the Golden Age, alas, except for one or two quotes on the backs of other books.