Review published on December 14, 2016.
After enjoying much success as an enthusiastic amateur, Mordecai Tremaine is finally invited to officially participate in a Scotland Yard murder investigation in In at the Death. The body of one Dr Hardene has been found in a derelict house in Bridgton and, while members of the local constabulary are eager to attribute the killing to an inebriated tramp or otherwise murderous vagrant, the fact that there have been several unsolved killings in the area in recent times means that the chief constable has no choice but to send for reinforcements from London.
Murder bag in hand, Chief Inspector Jonathan Boyce is quick to determine that the doctor’s death is far from a straightforward matter. What was a seemingly respectable GP doing in a clearly derelict building in the middle of the night? More importantly, why did he have a loaded gun in his pocket? Fortunately, Mordecai Tremaine’s particular brand of crime solving is ideally suited to complex situations where everyone has secrets and nobody wants to draw attention to themselves; he just needs to remember not to look too pleased that a murder has been committed.
Of all the famous Golden Age detectives, Mordecai Tremaine is perhaps most like Miss Marple (although it seems unlikely that that good lady would be a devoted subscriber of Romantic Stories magazine). He is a keen observer of the foibles of his fellow men and an extremely shrewd judge of character. He is also so unobtrusive that murderers are highly unlikely to recognise that he is on their trail, as well as so polite that nefarious killers will probably end up feeling guilty that they’ve put him to the trouble of catching them. Tremaine’s investigations are rarely action-packed, but they are certainly cerebrally rewarding.
In at the Death features a suitably complex central mystery for a detective who relies on brains rather than brawn. Dr Hardene may have appeared to be a popular and competent GP, but Tremaine soon determines that there was more to the good doctor than an acceptable bedside manner and a willingness to refer patients for specialist tests no matter the cost. Hardene was acquainted with an eclectic bunch of people, none of whom are particularly forthcoming when questioned by the police. Luckily, Tremaine has a knack for getting people to reveal vital information and deducing the real motivation behind their actions. This time, he even gets the opportunity to meddle in a stormy love affair.
Tremaine’s visit to Bridgton involves a nice, sedate mystery with a focus on whodunit and why. There is no gore and little overt badness, but it is still a very interesting murder case. Having been originally published in 1952, it is perhaps unsurprising that the scandals that underpin In at the Death are not always particularly scandalous (well, apart from the murder, that’s still a big no-no), although the focus on good, old-fashioned plotting rather than sensational scenes is arguably what makes the book such a good read.
Erin Britton 4/3
In at the Death by Francis Duncan
Vintage 9781784704834 pbk Aug 2016
Murder Most Festive: Christmas Capers from the Golden Age of Detection