Are there any other Michael Underwood fans out there? Underwood was a prolific writer of mysteries which usually had a legal element. His long career began in 1954 and came to an end with his death in 1992. He produced a number of series, the most extensive featuring the solicitor Rosa Epton, together with stand-alones, and he was Secretary of the Detection Club and served as Chair of the CWA. I think it's fair to say that he was predominantly a writer for the library market, but although he seldom scaled the literary heights as a novelist, he was an accomplished entertainer.
My forgotten book for today is one of his stand-alones, Hand of Fate, which appeared in 1981. It's a good story, which showcases Underwood's strengths, as well as his limitations. We begin with a scenario suggestive of the Crippen case. Frank Wimble is a rich, self-made man whose wife refuses him a divorce at a time when he wants to marry his mistress. Elspeth Wimble duly disappears in mysterious circumstances. Local gossip comes to the attention of the police and their investigations take a fresh turn when a severed hand is found in local woodland, bearing Elspeth's ring. Frank is duly charged with murder.
The murder trial takes up the bulk of the novel. Underwood, whose real name was John Michael Evelyn, was a barrister who worked in public prosecutions, and his command of detail is extremely convincing, even if sometimes the information is presented in a slightly dry way. We veer into Verdict of Twelve territory, with Underwood presenting us with insight into the jurors' lives, rather as Raymond Postgate did. This is fascinating, although many of the threads here are left undeveloped. We also learn about the female judge, and I presumed that what was going on in her personal life (her daughter-in-law is having an affair) would somehow link in with the plot. It's not really a spoiler to say that it doesn't. Here, I think, Underwood missed a trick. Postgate was more ambitious with his novel, and that's why it is better remembered.
Nevertheless, I kept turning the pages, wanting to find out what the truth was (I did guess most of it, but the twists are clever.) Underwood had a very smooth, readable style. What he lacked in terms of literary ambition, he made up for by telling a good story. In real life, he was gay, and my guess is that the discretion that evidently characterised his life influenced his approach to writing. He didn't want to give too much away about himself, although there's an interesting development in the closing paragraphs of the novel. This is a light, pacy read, and even if the characterisation isn't too sophisticated, it's well worth reading.