Friday, 5 February 2021

Forgotten Book - Candidate for Lilies

Roger East was in many ways a minor Golden Age author. He only wrote a handful of books, although his career lasted for thirty years. Yet he was an interesting individual and an appealing author. So appealing, in fact, that I find myself feeling frustrated that he didn't make more of an effort to establish himself as a crime writer of the first rank.

Candidate for Lilies, first published in 1934, illustrates both his strengths and his weaknesses as an author. It's a well-written novel with a genuinely interesting central idea. Yet one feels it could have been so much better. Now that may seem a harsh verdict. After all, Kirkus Reviews (not easily pleased) admired the novel on its American publication. More recently John Norris, a shrewd judge, has sung its praises on his Pretty Sinister blog.

The initial set-up is a familiar one. A rich old person, in this case Uncle Arnold, invites penurious family members to his mansion in the country, only to break the news that he's planning to change his will. As usual in Golden Age novels, the would-be testator duly gets his come-uppance. He's stabbed to death with one of his own Italian daggers, and we don't mourn him.

There's a restricted pool of suspects, and East's focus is as much on character and motive as on whodunit. As a result, the novel has an unorthodox feel to it, hence the critical praise. Today, when sophisticated writing in the crime genre is common enough, we may take East's ambition almost for granted, and I'm sure he could have made more of such material. But he could certainly write. Incidentally, the East name concealed the identity of Roger Burford (Roger d'Este Burford, to be precise!) and he was a Cambridge chum of Christopher Isherwood who worked in the film industry and later wrote for television. He deserves to be better known.

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