Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Who Killed Robert Prentice? (1937)



The second of Wheatley's delightful 'Crime Dossiers', and I don't mind telling you, I was determined I was going to beat this one, having failed so miserably to solve the first one, Murder Off Miami.

In the event, actually, I did guess whodunnit, but 'guess' is the operative word: I guessed straight away in fact, and it was purely a hunch, based on a familiarity with a further eighty years of murder mystery plots. I didn't actually spot any of the clues.
(That said, one of them, involving perfume, is surely unfair, since ingenious though the original dossiers were - and sadly this time round I was using a 1980s reissue with most of the bits of evidence merely reproduced on the page rather than inserted for real - I very much doubt whether Hutchinson was up to including scented pages.)
As it turns out, though, whodunnit is not as important as it first seems, since Wheatley and Links have pulled off a clever double twist that already - two books in - plays for its effect on the convention of the sealed endsection they themselves had only just established.

Actually, when I say I didn't solve Murder Off Miami, that's not strictly true. I did come up with a solution, and rather  a good one I thought, that certainly seemed to hold water... but thst just so happened not to be the correct one.
In my defence, it was my first encounter with a crime dossier, and I didn't know how fairly they played, or how minutely we were supposed to scan the material for submerged hints and revelations. It turned out that it played entirely fair: there really were clues to be spotted, and I didn't spot them.
So this time I was doubly determined to solve it all, and further galvanised by the fact that the sealed section in the edition I was reading was still sealed, and had never been read by anybody.
Sadly, though the mystery itself is ingenious, it's much more linear than Miami, and there simply aren't that many clues to spot - only two, really - though a few others dotted about may help to eliminate a couple of red herrings.

By far the most charming bit of evidence this time around is a folded copy of the South Sussex Chronicle, containing a complete and very helpful account of the inquest into Robert Prentice's murder.
But as it is an entire facsimile newspaper, that's not all! The illusion of authenticity is further sustained by genuine advertisements: a typically canny Wheatley innovation, the revenue from which off-set some of the unusually high printing costs that the Crime Dossiers accrued. (Baker, p. 359)
And what a peculiar assortment they are! We have 'Mackeson's Milk Stout ("the original and genuine milk stout, first brewed thirty years ago at Hythe"), and 'Sherley's Remedies', a complete range of canine health preparations, including shampoo, tonic and condition powders and worm capsules, advertised as being particularly useful for police dogs (who "have to be perfectly fit in all ways before they can give of their best and co-operate with their human colleagues in fighting crime.")
Elsewhere a smiling C.P. Miller of Bournemouth assures us "My Rupture never worries me Now!", not since he discovered the Brooks Appliance. (He can now lift any weight, and even move pianos.) And of course, there is an advert for Hutchinson books, displaying some of the best-selling authors they publish, among them one Eve Chaucer, whose latest (It Is Easier For a Camel), it helpfully informs us, is published October 8th. And then there's some fellow called Wheatley "whose work is published in sixteen languages."
And there's a separate ad for "The Ideal Present": Murder Off Miami, of course. "Post a copy to your friend abroad," it advises.

Oddly, this Wheatley chap turns up in three separate contexts in this one issue of the Chronicle. 
As well as the adverts for his books, we see him listed (in the other front page story, beside the murder) as one of the attendees at a meeting to form the committee of the Harry Preston Memorial Fund. This, too, was genuine, and its inclusion intended to drum up further contributions to the fund. Preston was a boxing promoter, hotelier and well-known society figure, as well as a close friend of Wheatley's who, according to his recollection in Drink and Ink, "had not deserted me during the time I was almost penniless." Wheatley later recalls that he supplied "two well-known pugilists" for a three-round contest in a ring specially erected at the Prince of Wales Hotel in De Vere Gardens as his own idiosyncratic contribution to the launch party for The Devil Rides Out.

But the best Wheatley cameo in the paper is his third, in a back page story entitled 'WRITER WHO MADE "MURDER FICTION" HISTORY LIVING NEAR SCENE OF CRIME', in which we discover - would you believe! - that just a short walk from the murder scene is "the country home of Mr J.G. Links, who, with Dennis Wheatley, created a new era in crime fiction a few months ago by the production of the now famous dossier, Murder Off Miami." Luckily the reporter found him at home, along with his guests, both Mr Wheatley and his wife ("also an author, who has already gained a wide public under the name of Eve Chaucer, by her two novels, No Ordinary Virgin and Better To Marry.")
The three do briefly hint at something of their guesses as to the solution of the local crime ("I shall be most interested to see how it turns out," Joan opines, "It might even have the makings of a good story.") But the bulk of the fairly lengthy article is given over to a meticulous book by book account of Wheatley's career to date (including of course, an excitement-whetting hint of what's to come, which in Wheatley's case, true to form, lines up not the next one book but the next three).
We are told, for the second time, that he has "so great a reputation that his work is published in sixteen languages, although his first book only appeared less than four years ago." The amazing success story of The Forbidden Territory is recounted  for the first time (but not by a long chalk the last). "Scene after scene" of Such Power Is Dangerous, we learn, "was so packed with excitement that the Sunday Dispatch critic wrote of it: 'Easily the best melange of thrills that I have ever read.'" This was followed by "his only serious book to date, although serious is perhaps hardly the word for his vivid and entertaining biography, Old Rowley."
And so on, and much more, in the same manner. For Wheatley to have included such puffery in one of his own productions is in itself the mark of a very particular personality, but the fact that it is actually he himself writing all this makes it something else again.
But as well as the fun of reading Wheatley praising himself to the skies, there are some interesting observations here in terms of how Wheatley perceived himself as a writer. Though They Found Atlantis is perhaps surprisingly described as "his best and favourite book" it is very intriguing to see that he has already identified The Devil Rides Out as the book "which Mr Wheatley thinks will probably outlive any of his others."
We also get a sense of just how ordered his writing life had become, even at this early stage (he explains that The Secret War "will come out in January - a bit soon after Contraband, but that can't be helped, as I always like to have one of my two annual books out early in the year"), and also how carefully he managed his career in order to achieve maximum sales potential. Describing his books as "tales of romantic adventure played out against very carefully chosen backgrounds which would provide readers with an additional interest and lend plausibility to the thrills and suspense," he continues:

Asked about his phenomenally rapid rise to the status of one of the world's best-sellers, he said that, as he never uses the same background for a story twice, the variety of his books may largely account for it. He argues that it is virtually impossible to please the whole of the thriller-reading public every time, but that each section of it may be given just the thing they want at intervals of three or four books. His mail informs him that every one of his stories proves first favourite with some readers, while the great majority, who may prefer others, still derive considerable enjoyment from the ones they do not personally consider to be his best.

Murder most foul: Prentice's body exactly as it was discovered!

So, what about this murder of Robert Prentice, then?
Well, it's a pretty racy tale, revolving around an extra-marital amour, and featuring a woman who is simultaneously enjoying the attentions of another woman's husband and her son; there's also a post-coital nude blackmail photo (included in the evidence), and free and frank discussion of abortion and promiscuity. No wonder it was banned in Nazi Germany on the grounds of inferior moral character: "created for English conditions, not German ones." (Baker, p.360)

Robert Prentice has been found dead, some time ago, from strychnine poisoning, and his widow Cicely has written to Lieutenant Schwab (famed, according to a newspaper clipping for his "brilliant feat of detection in the 'Murder Off Miami' case") to beg his assistance. The police have followed various leads and unearthed a number of suspects, but no case could be made to stick against a single one of them (not even sleazy blackmailer Nathaniel Smears, nor Suzanne L'Estrange, the dead man's gold-digging hussy of a secretary-cum-mistress, a "real 'still waters run deep', silent but very sexy man-eating type," with "that rather mincing, cat-like walk you sometimes notice in Frenchwomen").
As a result, though foul play seemed more or less certain, they have reluctantly dropped the investigation for want of evidence. Is there any chance the distinguished Lt Schwab could look into the matter afresh, and see if he can spot anything the other bloodhounds have missed?
So plaintive is her missive, so touching her concern that her husband's case be re-examined and his killer brought to justice... that I'm afraid I had her pegged as the murderess from page one.

As before, once all the various documents have been read and evidence perused, the book brings us to a sealed section and tells us not to break the seal until we are ready to identify the culprit. Having done so, we find a letter from Schwab that begins: "Dear Mrs Prentice, When you receive this you will be in gaol faacing the charge of murder..."
He then goes on to list the various bits of evidence from the previous material that pointed to her being the culprit.

But Wheatley and Links have another surprise up their sleeve.
We next jump to an account of the woman's trial, where one of the key pieces of evidence that Schwab had spotted is unexpectedly - and conclusively - demolished by a fresh revelation. It can only mean that Schwab was, in fact, wrong, and Mrs Prentice is actually innocent.
The case against her collapses, she is acquitted, and the book brings us delightfully back to square one with a second sealed section and a fresh injunction to "make up your mind who really did the murder"!
What we then learn (after a full-page ad for Wheatley's Secret War) is that, of course, Cicely Prentice was the murderess after all, but an uncommonly cunning and thorough one, who wrote to Schwab, and deliberately, as if unknowingly, supplied him with faked self-incriminating evidence, with the express aim of his alighting on her as the culprit and the case going to trial. Then, as planned, she produced the spectacular new evidence that undermined the case against her, and was set free.
The reason? To safeguard her future, since she had discovered that she had accidentally become pregnant by her husband the last time they met, the night before his murder. She had deliberately set up fake alibis, and created the impression that she had been miles away in Bath at the time, but since it was known and certain fact that they had not been in each other's company at all for the previous three months, the birth of his child could only mean that she had not been where she said she was at the most crucial time; indeed that she had gone to some effort to falsely establish otherwise. (She further decides that, given her notoriety as a result of the case, to flee or to attempt to secure an abortion would be equally as hazardous as having the child which, even before DNA testing, represents too great a risk, as her husband was hare-lipped.)
And so, she arranged for the phony evidence and the failed trial, because under English law, no person can be tried twice for the same crime, and no matter what evidence came to light from then on, she would be safe.

All very clever, all very satisfying. And now of course, this clever and satisfying final twist no longer works, since this bedrock safeguard against malicious prosecution, the enshrined right of every free citizen under English law since the Norman Conquest, was very kindly abolished on our behalf by Tony Blair in 2003.
What - if he could have even imagined such a thing coming to pass - would the Wheatley of A Letter To Posterity have made of that, I wonder?