Poisoned Pen’s line of British Library Classic Thrillers takes a leap forward from the golden age in reprinting this 1967 tale by antiquarian bookseller Sims (1923-99), who certainly writes what he knows.
Interrupting a Corsican holiday in which he’s solaced himself for his troubled marriage by taking a lover young enough to be his daughter, art dealer T. Edward Balfour is recalled to London by a pair of telegrams. The first, from his colleague and best friend, Holocaust survivor Sammy Weiss, begs “YOUR ADVICE ON TERRIBLE DECISION I MUST MAKE”; the second, from Ned’s estranged wife, Barbara, informs him that Sammy is dead after a plunge from a 10th-story window. Shaken by the horror of Sammy’s death, Ned is also troubled by its mystery: even if his friend wanted to kill himself, why would he have chosen this manner of death given the long-standing vertigo his friends all knew about? Vowing that “I think it’s about time I made a real effort to change,” Ned launches a discreet investigation into Sammy’s death, focusing on a mysterious list of names he left behind: Knowl Green, Steiner, Quarry. But it’s not discreet enough to escape the notice of debt collector Victor Maddox, who slaps Ned around and warns of worse treatment if he doesn’t stop asking questions. As Ned takes a fresh look at his familiar world of art collectors, auctions, and dealers, he gradually realizes he’s on the trail of some serious malfeasance. But even his most shocking discoveries are filtered through a thick scrim of his everyday experiences and his equally homely reflections on them.
The result, very reminiscent of John le Carré’s early detective stories Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, is a heightened sense of contrast between the vague impressions the hero’s always assumed are reliable and the yawning gulf beneath.