Here's my first post for Friday's Forgotten Books, the weekly homage to books of yesteryear hosted by Patti Abbot. Or, rather this week the guest host is Kerrie Smith.
Seemingly omniscient and slightly sinister Uncle Arnold who has been estranged from his nephews and niece invites them all for a weekend at his enormous mansion. During dinner he reveals to them secrets they thought were private, insinuates unflattering traits, often insults them, and finally informs them that his will is about to be changed. Shortly thereafter he is shot dead with one of his French dueling pistols.
Although the plot sounds like hundreds of other similar whodunits, East's sophisticated prose style and intelligent characters raise it a notch above what might have been ho-hum and run-of the-mill. The arch tone and comedy are soon abandoned when it is discovered that Herbert, one of the nephews, seems to be slowly losing his mind. An alienist is consulted who believes at first there is a biological or hidden genetic component as the root cause of the madness, then he believes that guilt is manifesting itself physically. But Sophy, Herbert's sister, soon comes to the conclusion that her brother is being poisoned by an insidious means.
The revelation of the killer may not be a huge surprise but the motive is and makes perfect sense in the context of the story which is about inheritance, family honor and family history. In this regard it reminded me of Death on Tiptoe (see my review here), but in East's case his ending is far from melodramatic. In fact, it is one of the saddest and most poignant endings I have encountered in a detective novel from this era. How East manages to change the tone of the book and get the reader to empathize with the murderer is nothing short of brilliant.
Roger East is a very underrated - and largely forgotten - writer deserving of reissued books. Candidate for Lilies (1934) is his third book. It was preceded by the bizarrely titled The Mystery of the Monkey Gland Cocktail (1932) and Murder Rehearsal (1933), a intricately plotted novel in which a mystery writer learns that one of his books is being eerily reproduced in a series of supposed suicides that turn out to be cleverly disguised murders. As far as I can tell none of his books were reprinted in paperback and only one (Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors) received a hardcover reissue. His last three books are more crime novels and thrillers than detective novels and can be found every now and then. But out of his six books written in the 1930s only three can be found from the usual online bookselling sites. The others seem to be extremely scarce - perhaps even genuinely rare books.
Roger East's Detective Fiction
The Mystery of the Monkey Gland Cocktail (1932)
Murder Rehearsal (1933)
Candidate for Lilies (1934)
The Bell is Answered (1934)
Twenty-Five Sanitary Inspectors (1935)
Detectives in Gum Boots (1936)
Pearl Choker (1954)
Kingston Black (1960)
The Pin Men (1963)