A deliciously anti-cozy tale of murder most multiplied that’s perhaps the choicest blast yet from the past almost-masters of mystery resurrected by Poisoned Pen’s British Library Crime Classics.
This 1933 novel by Rolls, the pseudonym of C.E. Vulliamy (1886-1971), is set in and around No. 6 Wellington Ave. in Shufflecester, a town on the banks of the River Shuff in Shuffleshire. As these place names and the characters’ proper names indicate, the pace is languid, the manner arch. Robert Arthur Kewdingham, an engineer thrown out of his job by the Great Depression and left to pursue his important work with the xenophobic Rule Britannia League and indulge his fantasies that he’s “a born collector” and that he was in an earlier life Athu-na-Shulah, High Priest of Atlantis, is clearly a man born to be murdered. Those at risk of rising to the challenge include his wife, Bertha, who longs to suffer no more from his querulous complaints and petty tyrannies; his cousin, novelist John Harrigall, who fancies himself more than a friend to Bertha; cooing Pamela Chaddlewick, who wants to hear all about Atlantis; and Dr. Wilson Bagge, who considers Kewdingham the perfect subject for his academic experiments with poison. Soon enough two different murderers have Kewdingham in their sights, and their combined efforts are a joy to behold. Sadly, Rolls’ delightfully impudent narrative voice isn’t matched by equally witty dialogue, and once Kewdingham succumbs to the fatal doses he’s been fed, Rolls finds room for only one more climactic twist.
Rolls, clearly writing with both dry eyes on Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought and Before the Fact, will remind fond readers with long memories of better-known landmarks by Henry Wade, Richard Hull, and Raymond Postgate.