London, still subject to frequent blackouts in the closing months of World War II, plays host to a questionable character who dies by violence many miles from the front.
Analytical chemist Bruce Mallaig, who thinks the figure illuminated only by a flickering match on a dim footbridge in Regent’s Park is waiting for a lover, is only half right. Moments later, the man is hammered to death by the man he was awaiting, leaving Mallaig and discharged service member Stanley Claydon as most perplexed witnesses. Chief Inspector Robert Macdonald (Bats in the Belfry, 1937, etc.) takes the two men over their statements so many times in such unsparing detail that the mystery of how the murderer could have arrived in such complete silence to bash John Ward to death is resolved with unseemly haste, leaving an altogether more teasing mystery: Who exactly was the man who called himself John Ward, and given his checkered past as Timothy O’Farrel, what skulduggery was he up to in Regent’s Park? Fastening without much logical justification on the dead man’s rum bunch of neighbors in Dulverton Place—historian James Carringford, Frivolity chorine Odette Grey, aging variety performer Rosie Willing, and conjuror Birdie Rameses, ne Richard Nightingale, and his wife and partner—Macdonald gradually reveals a surprising network of secret connections between Ward, or O’Farrel, and the living, whose variously marginal social status represented a paradise of blackmail opportunities for anyone as untroubled by moral scruples as the late lamented. Both the puzzle and the detection are starchy, clotted with talk of alibis, professional and unprofessional relationships, and other circumstantial details that are more pertinent than interesting.
Two bonuses are the unobtrusively observed wartime London background and an appendix, the deft, efficient short story “Permanent Policeman,” whose mystery is served and solved in the twinkling of an eye.