In at the Death by Francis Duncan

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In at the Death by Francis Duncan

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Category: Crime
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: JY Saville
Reviewed by JY Saville
Summary: This is a reasonably gentle 1950s mystery that will appeal to fans of golden age detective fiction. What makes it stand out is the thoughtful, human approach of the central character who chooses to see it as more than an entertaining intellectual puzzle.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: August 2016
Publisher: Vintage
ISBN: 978-1784704834

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Mordecai Tremaine is an elderly retired tobacconist, a fan of romantic fiction, and a wearer of pince-nez. Not a natural crime-fighting celebrity, you might think, but in In at the Death his burgeoning reputation as an amateur sleuth is both a blessing and something of a burden as he accompanies his good friend Inspector Boyce on the trail of a murderer in the city of Bridgton. The death of a local GP in an abandoned house looks like an unfortunate encounter with a tramp, but that doesn’t explain why the doctor had a gun in his bag. As the detectives get to work there are skeletons to be found lurking in a few closets.

We’re all familiar with Golden Age amateur detectives such as Campion or Poirot, and there are inevitable similarities here, the friendship with a member of Scotland Yard for instance. However, there are two main differences as far as I can see, and they are in Mordecai Tremaine’s favour. The first is his almost bashful humility – with none of the confidence or downright arrogance of others, Tremaine watches quietly, thinks, speaks politely when he has to. He constantly worries that his amateur status – and worse, his growing fame – will annoy the senior officers whose tolerance he relies upon. Secondly, the point that struck me early on and made me realise this was no ordinary cosy-by-numbers was his underlining of the human tragedy in all this. Yes, he enjoys the puzzle, as do the readers, but he keeps reminding himself that this is not some three-dimensional crossword to be solved for the intellectual thrill, this is the loss of a human life. Or rather, the loss of two human lives, for if Tremaine and his friend Boyce are successful in running down their man he will be hanged.

There are light touches to counteract Tremaine’s occasional dark moods and feelings of having no business being part of the investigation, such as the continuing amusement derived from his devotion to Romantic Stories magazine. He's a sucker for pretty girls and even the hint of romance, but although his innocence is endearing he is not so innocent that he isn't aware of the depths of human nature and what is at stake in this investigation.

The author, Francis Duncan, had unfortunately been forgotten, but after a new edition of Murder for Christmas was an unexpected hit in December 2015 a few of his other Golden Age novels have been re-released. In at the Death was originally published in 1952, when his career was already well-established.

The novel is clearly of its time, the prose a little flowery at times, with some of the scandals uncovered or hinted at almost laughably tame now. It also has a couple of twists that come completely out of left field, but if you accept the murder team's discoveries at face value then the eventual solution hangs together. All in all, this was an enjoyable mystery which I raced through.

If you like In at the Death you may also enjoy one of the Campion series such as Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham. We can also recommend Behold A Fair Woman by Francis Duncan.

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