Friday, 1 August 2014

Forgotten Book - Sudden Death

Exceptionally, my Forgotten Book for today is a nineteenth century crime novel written by a baron, no less, who, for unexplained reasons, never revisited the genre. The author is B.C. Skottowe, and the book is Sudden Death, which has the splendid sub-title My Lady the Wolf. Britiffe Constable (what wonderful forenames!) Skottowe was born in 1857 and died in 1925, a year before the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Sudden Death was first published in 1886, the year before Sherlock Holmes made his debut, so Skottowe certainly ranks as one of our earliest crime writers and was a young man when he wrote this one. And in fact, there is a kind of youthful gusto about the story, which helps to overcome the plausibility deficit. Skottowe was educated at New College, Oxford, and had wide-ranging interests (one of his books was A Short History of Parliament), but sadly, I don't know a great deal more about him.

I first heard about the book when I read Julian Symons' marvellous Bloody Murder. Symons described the book as a particular curiosity, but unfortunately explained why this was so by summarising the story, including the solution. I shall avoid a similar spoiler here. Yet despite knowing the plot, I have wanted to read this book ever since I read what Symons said about it. Unfortunately, the book is pretty rare, and I've only just tracked down a copy.

The story is told by Jack Buchanan, a wealthy young man, who witnesses a murder committed on  a cliff top by a mysterious woman. She escapes and cannot be traced. Three years later, Jack is spending time in Homburg with a group of equally well-off acquaintances when another murder occurs and the prime suspect - yes! - bears an uncanny resemblance to the cliff top killer. The plot thickens from there.

The prose and literary style of Sudden Death may be quite decorous (if sometimes over the top by modern standards) but the story is really all about sex and sexual ambiguity. It's a strange, uneven story, yet still very readable,and I'm really glad that my long search for it has borne fruit. Symons was right, it is a curiosity. Yes, it's the work of a youthful and inexperienced writer, rather than a mature novelist, but to anyone with a strong interest in Victorian crime fiction, I'd say it is a must-read, not least because of its historical significance. It's a real shame, and also a mystery, that Skottowe never returned to the genre. I can't summon up the same enthusiasm for his history of Parliament.

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