Monday, November 26, 2012

Singular Case of the Multiple Dead - Mark McShane

It's hard to believe that this utterly silly crime novel of the absurd came from the typewriter of Mark McShane. Better known for his deadly serious thrillers that mix the supernatural with the criminal McShane's early work bears little trace of the outlandish humor on display in The Singular Case of the Multiple Dead (1969). A melange of the surreal humor of Monty Python, Abbot & Costello's punny wordplay routines, classic slapstick and bedroom farce it seems that this book might appeal to everyone's idea of what's funny. Maybe I was hungry for nonsense because I happened to find its cast of lunatics and their kooky antics to be the perfect tonic for my late autumn blues.

Lady Madge Severn has collected a group of misfit wannabe artistes and formed a salon she dubs the Bloomsbury Group Junior. During their latest meeting they discuss a paltry tax of one shilling levied on theater seats. It is the latest in a series of insults upon the British public and serves as the proverbial camel's back breaking straw. Lady Severn is outraged and she hopes to incite her group into action. Something must be done. All nine members have a brainstorming session resulting in three possible schemes to oust the Chancellor of Exchequer, the man responsible for the tax. They will force him to resign through blackmail, create a scandal and get him fired, or -- as a last resort -- assassinate him.

The oddballs in the Bloomsbury Group are:

Tony Zero – a vain pretty boy who does absolutely nothing but pose and stare vacantly while imagining his latest discounted assignations in his failed attempts to be come a gigolo for hire.

Virginius Twyce - the Casper Milquetoast of the group. Twyce is so terrified of being caught when asked to perform a simple task like buying a lock and chain that he imagines exaggerated scenarios in which shopkeepers suspect him of plotting the overthrow of the nation. Understandably, this makes it difficult for him even to set foot in a store let alone make eye contact when handing over his money.

Minerva Droplet – watercolor artist who fantasizes with regularity how the gossip columnists will discuss her latest adventures.

Ace paperback gives the impression
this is a spooky chiller. Wrong!
Sid Fourpenny – a budding poet more interested in bedding down the women in the group than putting pen to paper. His impersonation of the C of E, however, is one of the highlights of the book.

Jean Quin – aspires to be the next Greta Garbo. Jean uses her consummate acting skills and her tempting body to ensnare staff members working in the C of E's office.

Relentable Cease - How's that for a name? A professional musician Cease creates anthems for the group and tends to sit back while everyone else does the dirty work.

Jem Gate – taciturn to the point of one word utterances, to get a full sentence out of Gate would be quite a feat. He's a gravestone carver whose specialty is getting the breasts just right on his inappropriately shapely angels. He is the one member intent on carrying out the assassination plan if only he can find a hitman willing to kill someone. Everyone he encounters will only injure, maim or dismember.

Have you noticed the uncanny similarity of each character's surname? The numeric similarities are a gimmick I thought would be a feature in the plot but it turns out to be yet another indication of McShane's penchant for silliness. I particularly liked when Fourpenny impersonates the C of E at a Swedish war toy convention and insults a food vendor by spitting out the tea cake he is sampling. Lady Severn was sure that this would cause an international incident of scandalous proportions making headlines and lead to the firing of the C of E. Needless to say it backfires monstrously.

This will give you an idea of the loopy fun McShane indulges in:

Amid all the nonsense members of the group are being systematically killed off, hence the strange title. Unbeknownst to the Bloomsbury Group Junior (but disclosed to the reader) is that each victim has been contemplating leaving the group prior to their sudden often bizarre demise. Apparently membership in Bloomsbury Group Junior is for life; resignations will not be tolerated.

The group seems to take the deaths all in stride, a mere side effect of the life of a political activist. Lady Severn sets aside a suitable mourning period of fifteen minutes for each shocking accident and asks that the surviving group members put their gifts and talents to use for the memorial services. Fourpenny provides solemn odes and Cease composes dirges, for example.

The police are conspicuously absent from the farcical proceedings leaving the detective work -- or more accurately the guessing game -- up to the reader alone. But figuring out who is behind the fatal accidents is not really the point in this comedy of errors. In its madcap pointlessness laughter may be all that McShane intended to produce. It worked for me, at least.


  1. Oh, John, this sounds delightful. I must be in the same silly mood!

  2. I've only read the three SEANCE books but the outlandish titles of some of his other books made me assume his books were probably quirkier than your average thriller. Sounds really good and silly John, ta very muchly.

  3. I must read this. Fabulous names, and the bit of dialogue you included made me laugh out loud. Thanks for uncovering (for me) another gem.