THE CHARACTERS: In this fairly large cast every character is superbly drawn, lively and quirky, most with wry sense of humor. Here are the people who stand out:
Patricia Mullins - Anthony's widow who seemed to have a long line of admirers and may have been involved romantically with more than one of them.
Ralph Holliday - Antony's nephew who has travelled to Berlin on a business trip and has not been heard of since.
Francis Filson - a portrait painter who doesn't do much painting. He takes two days to sketch Pat and the painting has not even been started before Mullins turns up dead. Mullins believes Filson and his wife were having an affair and that that the portrait will never materialize.
Dr. Eustace Marabout - oddball physician who studies occult and supernatural lore then actually begins to believe in the existence of vampires, demons and werewolves citing examples he has met in his life.
Mrs. Murples - runs a boarding house for athletes and trains boxers. She's foul-mouthed, tough and strangely very likeable. I love the scenes in which she appeared.
Sandy Delfinage - in charge of the stables at the Mullins estate. She's an able equestrian and the most sharp witted person in the book. Not too trusting of Mrs. Mullins. Has her eye on Frank, and not just as a possible suspect. Is certain that the murderer is...
Dr. James Constant - a major legatee named in Mullin's will. His Society for Scientific Research receives a sizeable bequest leading Sandy to suspect him of killing Mullins for the money. His odd habit of wearing a fake beard is not just a trademark of his vanity as the police try to convince Sandy. She, instead, finds it both ridiculous and sinister.
Constable Lawrence Sadler - young police officer whose keen intelligence and athleticism draw attention of Scotland Yard. He is instrumental in tracking down Mrs. Mullins in the climax which leads him from England to France to Spain and rescuing her from a diabolical deathtrap.
A very minor character who has only a few scenes but was truly one of the best in the book is Vicomte de Grandlieu, a feisty aristocrat with a sense of romance and adventure. He is all too willing to help PC Sadler get to Catalonia with the aid of his private airplane. It helps that the Vicomte is an ace pilot who has racked up several record breaking solo flights all over the world.
Eventually Sprigg's series detectives Charles Venable, a crime writer, and Inspector Bray of Scotland Yard make an appearance. Though Sandy and Frank do much of the sleuthing in the book, Charles and Bray have the final say in solving the murder and explaining other various mysteries that crop up in he intricately plotted story. But it may never have been solved without the imaginative thinking of Sandy Delfinage.
|Yum! Marmite brand yeast extract advert inside front cover|
INNOVATIONS: The title is one of the cleverest parts of the book. The Perfect Alibi applies to four characters, one of whom probably never needed an alibi at all. It's something of a tour de force employing a detective novel convention that became the hallmark of writers like Freeman Wills Crofts, Milton Propper and Christopher Bush. Sprigg turns the whole notion of a perfect alibi on its head and does so with a sense of ironic humor when the solution is revealed. The book utilizes other crime fiction motifs as well like masquerade, cover-ups, frame-ups, manipulation of evidence, and multiple false and true confessions all of it done with originality and unusual spins on what are often tired conventions employed with little verve or imagination.
Early in the book it seems as if the novel will be an impossible crime murder complete with locked room. The local police attempt to write the strange death off as a suicide. But Inspector Trenton raises two points: "The door was locked. We've searched the garage and haven't found the key. How could he get in without a key, or get rid of it once he had locked himself in? How could he shoot himself and then get rid of the revolver?" While there is an element of impossibility to the murder and the fire that destroyed the garage and incinerated most of the corpse the locked room aspect is dismissed well before the halfway mark.
QUOTES: Venables: "The case could have been solved on the facts known a the very outset of the investigation. Every fact and clue we needed was given to us. It was like the fairest possible detective story in the world, in which the reader is let into every material circumstance needed to enable him to guess the solution. And yet I couldn't guess it! It is something to be ashamed of."
EDITION: Cherry Tree Books were published by Withy Grove Press, Ltd. They were the British equivalent of the ubiquitous US digest publications of years past. Similar to the practice of American digests the Cherry Tree Books were abridged versions of the original hardcover editions. Unlike the US equivalents, however, the books are not noted as being abridged. All of them were no more than 95 pages long and were typeset in an extremely small font size making it very hard on the eyes of even the most healthy and youthful reader. You're reading this blog in font around 11 pt. But the book is typeset like this, in 8 pt type. The books have ads all over the place, inside the covers, the back cover and even within the book, and all of them are for horrid food products like yeast extract and Bovril's meat powder which is supposed to be some sort of flavor enhancer. My copy of The Perfect Alibi also has an ad for Cadbury's Bourn-Vita, "the Protective Food", some sort of health food powder to be mixed in water and drunk. This from a chocolate manufacturer. Not sure I want to know what it's made of.
Would you dare read 95 pages of this?
EASY TO FIND? Not at all, my friends. Ages ago the Doubleday Crime Club edition occasionally would turn up in the used book market usually at a rather high price, but I've not seen a copy for sale in almost 20 years. I was very lucky to find this Cherry Tree paperback about five or six years ago. I had no idea any of Sprigg's books were reprinted in paperback during his short life. Currently there are absolutely no copies of this book for sale from online dealers. Apparently an indie press was planning to reprint some of Sprigg's detective novels and had included The Perfect Alibi as a promised release. But to date they seem to have suspended all plans for future books.