A good old-fash­ioned de­tec­tive story

National Post (Latest Edition) - - THE SHELF - Joan Barfoot


A Gen­tle­man’s Mur­der by Christophe­r Huang Inkshares 352 pp; $20.95 In an ex­ten­sive au­thor’s note at the end of A Gen­tle­man’s Mur­der, Mon­trealer Christophe­r Huang lays out his pref­er­ences in the crime genre: he likes “the de­tec­tive story as a game,” a “puz­zle-type” mys­tery.

It’s an old-fash­ioned sort of con­cept — mod­ern mys­ter­ies are more apt to em­pha­size com­plex­i­ties of char­ac­ter and the as­sorted psy­cholo­gies of hu­man be­hav­iours when it comes to both crimes and their res­o­lu­tions.

Huang’s first novel, though, isn’t fun­da­men­tally dis­sim­i­lar to, say, Agatha Christie and the “lit­tle grey cells” of Her­cule Poirot.

Not to men­tion that A Gen­tle­man’s Mur­der is, at its base, a clas­sic locked-room mys­tery.

In ac­cord with its lean­ings, the novel is set in Eng­land in 1924, with the coun­try and its peo­ple still try­ing to pick them­selves up from the First World War, many not very suc­cess­fully.

Still try­ing to find his foot­ing, al­beit from a so­cially ad­van­taged po­si­tion, is Lt. Eric Peterkin, a vet­eran of Flan­ders.

He’s sad­dened by the suf­fer­ings, in­clud­ing en­dur­ing shell shock — what now would be called PTSD — and sui­cides, among too many of his fel­low vets.

But his own un­ease doesn’t mean he can’t seek out the com­forts of the Bri­tan­nia Club, a posh men-only, mil­i­tary-only pri­vate Lon­don wa­ter­ing hole in which mem­ber­ship has been a Peterkin fam­ily tra­di­tion.

And then there comes the puz­zle that scratches at his de­duc­tive pow­ers — and those of will­ing read­ers — through­out A Gen­tle­man’s Mur­der.

The cast of club char­ac­ters is not huge. Ed­ward Alder­shott is the stiff-necked club pres­i­dent, ar­ro­gant and snob­bish — and also marred by scar­ring from wartime mus­tard gas.

Mor­timer Wolfe, who’d be one of the mean girls if he were a girl, en­joys chal­leng­ing other mem­bers to fool­ish bets. But he was also the heroic sort who, cap­tured sev­eral times, kept es­cap­ing the Ger­mans.

Pa­trick Nor­ris is the club joker, a jit­tery fel­low whose aim ap­pears to be charm­ing enough to keep oth­ers’ hearts and toes light.

And Cap­tain Oliver Saxon is the board mem­ber who in­sists on ad­mit­ting to mem­ber­ship Al­bert Ben­son. A con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor who re­fused to fight in the war, Ben­son vol­un­teered as a stretcher bearer on the front lines and nar­rowly sur­vived.

The club has a locked room with locked boxes in which mem­bers can store what­ever items they want, and Ben­son has al­ready claimed one.

When Wolfe wants to bet him that he can get into the usu­ally im­preg­nable room and the box, mak­ing off with a sam­ple of its con­tents, Ben­son agrees.

The even­ing ends. The morn­ing comes, along with the time to find out if Wolfe man­aged to get into Ben­son’s box.

In­stead, a lit­tle group of club mem­bers, in­clud­ing Peterkin, finds Ben­son’s body, stabbed by Alder­shott’s let­ter opener, in the locked room.

Pur­su­ing a mur­derer nat­u­rally takes Peterkin into the past as well as the present, through wartime and re­cov­er­ies, re­la­tion­ships and as­sorted other en­tan­gle­ments, to a con­clu­sion that could pos­si­bly be reached by a reader pay­ing ex­cep­tion­ally close at­ten­tion to the puz­zle and game as it un­folds.

By the end, Peterkin looks set for a sec­ond ad­ven­ture and Huang, who grew up in Singapore be­fore mov­ing to Canada, looks set to add nicely to this coun­try’s thriv­ing crime-fic­tion in­dus­try.

If Eric Peterkin isn’t yet all that in­ter­est­ing as a char­ac­ter, he does have use­ful char­ac­ter­is­tics. For one thing, he’s mixed-race, the son of an English fa­ther and a Chi­nese mother, and the novel ex­plores the racism he some­times en­coun­ters.

Huang is a skilled and evoca­tive writer. The least puz­zle-like, most elo­quent as­pects of A Gen­tle­man’s Mur­der lie in his beau­ti­fully vivid de­pic­tions of the at­mos­phere of a great city, at a par­tic­u­lar time.

He also has a nifty knack for sliv­ers of com­edy. When the novel opens, Peterkin is em­ployed by a pub­lisher as the bored and tor­mented reader of crime book manuscript­s — most of them, he con­tends, per­fectly aw­ful. Many no doubt are — but hap­pily, not this one.

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