Friday 24 April 2020

Forgotten Book - The Case of the Calabar Bean

There's something very Golden Age about a title like The Case of the Calabar Bean. You simply don't get book titles like that these days. The author was Cecil M. Wills and the novel was published right at the end of the Golden Age, in 1939. The publishers were Hodder & Stoughton - Wills had moved to this prestigious imprint a year or two before, having earlier been published by a less notable house. At the time, he seems to have been moving up in the crime writing world. He never quite made it to the Premier League, but he is a good writer of the second division.

My own copy bears a pleasing authorial inscription: " regale scanty house of leisure- or to put him to sleep," and certainly this story has an amiability about it that suggests Wills, about whom I don't know much, was an amiable fellow. So is his series detective, Chief Inspector Boscobell of Scotland Yard, generally referred to in the text as Geoffrey rather than by his surname.

An interesting feature of the book is the "prologue", which is actually half a dozen short first person accounts of life in Molton Priory, the scene of the crime - a scene which benefits from two floor plans, on the front and rear endpapers of the book. We are then plunged into the murder case - Rex Farradale is found dead and his wife Myrtle is seriously ill. They have evidently been poisoned. So who is responsible?

The book is presented as a challenge to the reader, although I must say I found it easy to figure out the culprit's identity. This is because there are too few credible suspects. I suspect that Wills came across one very interesting piece of information which he felt he could build a plot around. It is indeed interesting, but I think he could have made better use of it, perhaps by introducing more plot complications. As it is, the story seems over-long. What's more, it seems almost inevitable to me that the culprit's cunning plan would have gone awry. Yet despite these flaws, I rather enjoyed this one. Wills writes agreeably and although he can be a bit long-winded, he was a capable entertainer. I'm definitely interested in reading more of his work. 


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