A good old-fashioned detective story
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.