Three detective novels by James Anderson

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The three in question are The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy (1975), The Affair of the Mutilated Mink (1981), and The Affair of the Thirty-Nine Cufflinks (2003), the books by which the late James Anderson is best known.  With their interwar English aristocratic setting they evoke the classic Golden Age of detective fiction.  The action in each mainly occurs at Alderley, the stately home of George Henry Aylwin Saunders, the twelfth Earl of Burford. and his wife Lavinia, Countess of Burford.  The books aren’t linked in their plots so strictly speaking can be tackled in any order, but they do run in sequence, with Lord Burford becoming more depressed as murders keep happenin’ every time they have a party of guests (it is made clear in Thirty-Nine Cufflinks that the three cover about a year in total).  The only characters to appear in all of the books are George, Lavinia, their lively daughter Lady Geraldine, usually known as Gerry, Merryweather the faithful butler, plus Inspector Wilkins, the local police detective who, with his sidekick Sergeant Leather, is regularly brought in to solve the latest murder.

In Bloodstained Egg Cosy, Alderley is the venue for political negotiations being conducted discreetly by the Earl’s younger brother, a government minister (when it was possible to rise to significant political office through social connections – thank goodness those days are over), with representatives of a foreign power.  Discussions have to be kept secret, but there is a possibility that a spy means to steal information with significant commercial value.  Meanwhile various other guests are on the premises, including a wealthy Texan who, like the Earl, is an avid collector of firearms.  Added to the mix, a mysterious jewel thief, called The Wraith could spell trouble, what with a valuable diamond necklace belonging to the wife of the Texan in the house.  When the minister’s old flame, who has arrived following a most suspicious motor accident right outside the gates, is found dead in a secret passage, and a foreign diplomat’s body turns up in the lake, Wilkins and the secret service representative who had been covertly in attendance have their work cut out disentangling murder foreign and domestic.  Proceedings take a while to pick up speed but once they really get going it become a satisfyingly convoluted read.

In Mutilated Mink the Earl is a film fan and finds himself entertaining a Hollywood director and his major star, plus a couple of Gerry’s beaux whom she cannot choose between.  A famous Italian star is found dead, leading to the usual investigation among a closed set of suspects most of whom have something to hide. This is if anything even more engaging than Bloodstained Egg Cosy as it plays with genre conventions.  Wilkins complains about the outbreak of murder among the English upper classes in recent years, giving examples drawn from detective novels rather than life, and a number of fictional detectives by other authors are name-checked as if they were real people.  Of one particular act Wilkins says ‘it’s the stuff of mystery stories, not real life’, though the act in question does not stand out as particularly less plausible than others in the book.  When the American star announces he is himself going to direct a film and is asked if it will be based on the events which had taken place in the house he scoffs and says, ‘Not likely! Who’d believe it?’

What really sets this entry above the other two though is the presence of Scotland Yard man St. John Allgood who takes charge of the case and is splendidly arrogant, even airily calling the Earl ‘Burford’.  His is the fate one often wonders about when the suspects are gathered together for the denouement: what if the overconfident detective points the finger but gets it wrong?  Horribly embarrassing is the answer.  Fortunately in this instance Wilkins is on hand to put things right.  The other lesson one learns is that while the guilty are surprisingly happy in detective novels to make a full and frank confession rather than chance it in court with a good defence, it cannot be guaranteed that they will go quietly, as Gerry discovers when the villain takes her hostage (at which point the novel takes on the trappings of a thriller rather than a classic detective yarn).

Despite his misgivings after the last two disastrous house parties, in Thirty-Nine Cufflinks the Earl, against his better judgement, consents to host the funeral reception and reading of the will at Alderley after the death (by natural causes) of his great-aunt the Hon. Mrs Florence Saunders, who is buried in the family plot close by.  And of course a family plot it turns out to be when a rather unpleasant relative-by-marriage, snubbed by the deceased in the provisions of the will, makes a threat to expose the others and that night is found bumped off.  This story is complicated partly by virtue of having so many characters all related to each other (not that any of the three can be said to be uncomplicated), so it is useful to have a family tree to refer back to in order to work out how everybody is connected.  Like its predecessors there are subsidiary secrets to be cut through before the murderer can be unmasked by Wilkins.

Wilkins has to be one of the best things in the books.  He fails to impress when he first arrives in Bloodstained Egg Cosy.  Seeming a bit out of his depth, he habitually plays down his abilities but as we learn he is highly intelligent and while declaring that he is ‘not sanguine’ about his prospects of solving whichever crime he investigating is able to cut through its complexities.  At the end of each case he is able to bring the suspects together and tease out the various strands in their accounts until lies are exposed and the facts revealed.  Where Allgood grandstands, Wilkins uses dialogue and guile to determine the truth.  He is a worthy addition to the canon of great detectives.

There are flaws, however, even as one admires the intricate plotting.  An obvious tic is the masquerade, someone pretending to be someone else and fooling everybody until exposed, an example of which occurs in each of the three.  There is too the occasional convenient coincidence.  More critically the servants are always ruled out, on the spurious grounds that they have been with the family a long time.  It keeps the number of suspects within manageable limits, but it is an awkward device.  After all, there is no reason why William the footman, say, should be exempt from suspicion; he could have spotted the rotter who had seduced his sister among the guests and decided to take revenge.  Something along those lines actually does happen to one of the guests in Bloodstained Egg Cosy.  Also rather oddly Anderson a number of times refers to something called a ‘flashlight’, which my Shorter Oxford tells me is what Americans call an electric torch.  Why English characters, particularly in the 1930s, should use such an alien word is a mystery in itself.

This cosily hierarchical aristocratic milieu, as we view it through the fiction of the period, is conjured up nicely in these pastiches, but with a refreshingly playful slant, and the pages turn at an agreeably fast pace through the twists and turns.  Anderson’s death in 2007 was a loss, but we still have his Affairs to enjoy.  In them he delivers a thousand pages of pure pleasure.

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