Originally, this slot on my 20 Books of Summer list was set aside for The Nine Tailors by Agatha Christie. I knew it was a reread (I enjoyed it just as much this time around), but I thought I’d read it before I started my blog – it turns out I actually read it right when this blog was new, so I’ve already done a post about it. Instead, I picked up Murder Underground by Mavis Doriel Hay, which has been sitting on my shelf for a while. This was written squarely during the Golden Age of Crime (published in 1934), so it feels like a suitable replacement for a Sayers novel.
Murder Underground opens with the death of Miss Euphemia Pongleton (!), spinster. Miss Pongleton is a resident at the Frampton Private Hotel, an extremely respectable boarding house populated with all kinds of people. Unlike most murder mysteries, especially of the Golden Age era, this doesn’t focus on investigation. Neither amateur nor professional detectives are the driving force of the novel. Instead, it explores the effect that Miss Pongleton’s murder has on her relatives and the other residents of the boarding house. Conveniently, Miss Pongleton was fairly unpleasant, so these characters are largely spared the tedium of grieving her. This allows them to spend their time speculating, gossiping, and fretting excitedly about the death, leaving the reader to pick up clues as they might. That’s a new approach for a murder mystery that I haven’t come across, and I enjoyed that aspect of Murder Underground a lot.
Most of the characters are not very fleshed out. In fact, other than the late lamented Miss Pongleton, I think the character we get the strongest sense of is Tuppy, her pug. Tuppy is rather lazy and coddled, having been almost the only thing Miss Pongleton could ever bring herself to spend money on. Other than Tuppy, the residents of the boarding house include: Mrs Bliss, the landlady who is horrified and delighted by Miss Pongleton’s death in equal measure; Mr Blend, who is obsessed with clipping reports of murders out of the newspaper and filing them away in innumerable scrapbooks; Nellie, the weepy housemaid whose boyfriend is initially arrested for the crime; and Mrs Daymer, a novelist who writes inaccessible psychological books and is very interested in studying “types” for research purposes. There are three or four other characters just based at the boarding house, to say nothing of Miss Pongleton’s relatives and the sundry other characters drawn into the story as it goes along. Very few of them get enough page space to be properly developed, and I think this would have been a better book with roughly half the number of characters.
Part of the problem is Basil Pongleton, the one character who does get a decent amount of development. Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to believe that a human being could be as consistently stupid as Basil. He’s Miss Pongleton’s nephew, and is the point-of-view character for much of the novel. For much of the novel, he is trying to conceal his actions on the morning of the murder – according to Basil, he isn’t guilty but did coincidentally do a lot of things that unfortunately make him look guilty – and he just makes one terrible decision after another as he blunders about trying to cover these up. Even though the reader is left guessing for a long time about whether he is actually the murderer, his behaviour is impossible to credit either way. Generally, in murder mysteries, both innocent and guilty people are trying to conceal things from the police or the detective. They aren’t normally trying to conceal so very many things, though, or in such a credulity-straining manner. I found myself rolling my eyes at Basil and wishing his nice, sensible girlfriend Betty would chuck him instead of getting drawn in.
Despite my frustration with the characters, though, I enjoyed the puzzle – everything slotted together satisfactorily towards the end, and I had picked up on some but not all of the clues. I consider that to be the mark of an engaging mystery: I’m not very good at solving them, so when I do guess the solution I tend the think there isn’t enough obfuscation, but if I can’t pick up on anything I struggle to stay interested. This is neither the best nor the worst of the British Library Crime Classics that I’ve read – worth reading, but not worth rushing out and buying right away.