“And what are you doing on Major Thirkell’s estate at this time of night? After birds?”
“Birds? Oh, yess. I sought I heard a nightingale.”
“A nightingale in November?”
“Yess. it is very late, isn’t it?”
“Late? It is impossible.”
“Impossible. Yess. You see, I sought I heard one, and I knew it wass impossible you see. So I sought I would come and see.”
Journalist Peter Allen (who perhaps is the writer’s series character), after attending the wedding of his aunt to ex-Scotland Yard officer, Archie Wiston, decides to visit his old Oxford-mate Conrad Thirkell. However, before reaching Conrad’s house, he comes across an unconscious lady. When Peter is finally able to wake her up, she tells him that she got tired of waiting for her husband and so drank a little more wine than is usual and was simply in a drunken stupor. Though, the woman, Ginger, tries to laugh off the incident, Peter feels that there was definitely something in the wine. His misgivings are solidified when ‘Crackers’ an old companion of Ginger, tells him that somebody is trying to murder Ginger who Peter discovers is the wife of Conrad.
However, when a murder attempt is made on Ginger in front of his eyes, he becomes convinced that this was merely orchestrated by Ginger and Crackers. Meanwhile Conrad tells him that his father, Major Thirkell, does not like his wife because she is not ‘pukka’ enough for him. Father and son also have another bone of contention: The Major wears his patriotism on his sleeve while Conrad from his college days has been a pacifist who can not even see animals suffer and so even tolerates Ginger’s Persian cat who goes around scratching everybody and jumping on them, in one case, fatally! And making Percy the parrot squawk in indignation, curse everybody, and shed his feathers!
Meanwhile, in all this mayhem, the ornithologist Schimmpelpfennig goes prowling in the dark. What? You thought there could be a novel written in 1940, and not have a sinister German agent in it!!! He not only says Heil Hitler but also tells Peter that Chermans would soon be teaching the English how to make better beer because Cherman beer was the best. When Peter tells him that the English were satisfied with their beer making skill and didn’t need to be taught, Schimmpelpfenning turns philosopher and tells him:
“Ja. And maybe that is what your African natives say, zey don’t want to be taught.”
Unable to investigate the whole affair – which turns bizarre by the hour – all by himself, Peter rings up Wiston who comes hurrying back from his honeymoon. Well Peter, you can forget about getting even a penny from aunt Emily!
This was an enjoyable book with Conrad being one of the most original characters I have ever come across. I mean who would hold a three-foot grass snake at his landlady and ask her to give it some milk. There is also the fire-breathing McCormick, the editor of the newspaper Peter works for.
And, of course, Schimmelpefennig whose gradual and sometimes painful learning about English chokes was pretty well done:
“Talking about analysis, ” I said. “A friend of mine had some wine analysed yesterday. He found sodium phenobarbitol in it.”
“But that is a sleep-inducing compound.”
“Yes. there was enough in a glass to put a man to sleep for from six to eight hours.”
“But that would not be in wine.”
“But it was.”
“Not in Cherman wine.”
“Maybe not. My friend thinks somebody put it there for a joke.”
“A choke? But it would spoil the wine.”
“And put the man to sleep.”
“I do not see how that is funny, to put a man to sleep.”
“Perhaps you don’t understand our sense of humour. The idea now is that my friend will play a joke back on the man who put the stuff in his wine.’
“Will he put him to sleep too? I do not unnerstand these English chokes.”
“Oh, no. It will be something more drastic. In fact, the man had better get away from here before my friend gets to work on him. It will be something with a little boiling oil in it, I fancy.”
“What? Boiling oil in wine? But that would spoil it absolutely.”
If only the novel could have maintained this irreverent flavour throughout. Unfortunately, nearabout the end, a character suddenly showed traits that s/he had not shown earlier and with that the author completely lost the plot.
Haven’t been able to get any information on the author except that he wrote at least three more mysteries: Such Natural Deaths, Even Doctors Die, and the intriguingly titled: Hung for an Eyelash. Do you have any information on him?
First Line: She wasn’t dead.
Publication Details: 1940. London: Collins (The Crime Club), 1940.