Friday, May 17, 2019

FFB: The Perfect Alibi - C. St. John Sprigg

Courtesy of Curt Evans' vast collection of Crime Club books
Thanks Curt!
THE STORY: Cruel and vicious Antony Mullins who promised misery upon his wife and her various lovers is found dead in his blazing garage. At first thought to be a strange suicide or an accident it is soon discovered that he was shot in the back of the head. Mullins was a very rich man and some surprising legatees named in his will arouse suspicion by both police and those who expected to be named in the will. Yet the three most likely suspects all have iron-clad alibis. When the police are stymied unable to break what appears to be The Perfect Alibi (1934) Sandy Delfinage and her friend painter Francis Filson turn amateur sleuth to ferret out a very clever murderer.

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 loved 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 the 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 in the hands of other writers.

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 at 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."

THINGS I LEARNED: One of the places where Mrs. Mullins hides out in the action-packed finale is the Hotel de Talleyrand in Paris. In the early 1930s it was still being used as a tourist and residential hotel. But my internet research revealed the hotel has rich history, most of it fairly recent. In the post-WW2 era the Hotel de Talleyrand was used by the US State Department in talks related to the Marshall Plan for European economic recovery. Owned by the wealthy Rothschild family for over 100 years it was eventually purchased from them in 1950 by the State Department and became the home of the US embassy in France. Later it was renamed the George C Marshall Center. In a nine year multimillion dollar project lasting from 2008-2017 largely financed by private donations the main rooms were restored and renovated to their original 17th century splendor. For more about the hotel and its transformation into a global seat of diplomatic discussions see this website.

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", which turns out to be the UK equivalent of Ovaltine. It's a chocolate malt flavoring which explains why it's made by a chocolate manufacturer. But I'm not buying that it's a health food as it's being marketed in the ad in this book. They tried do to the same thing with Ovaltine in the USA.

Ouch!
Would you dare read 95 pages of this?
This is the first Cherry Tree Book I've managed to finish. I abandoned others because of eyestrain; the font size is agonizing to deal with. But this book was too good to give up on so I endured the possible hazards of further ruining my already severely myopic vision and managed to survive relatively unscathed and without suffering any headaches. I'll be reading a few more of these Cherry Tree Book in the months to come because they tend to be the only edition I can buy of some extremely rare titles by mystery and crime fiction writers I've been wanting to read for many years now.

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.

UPDATE, 7/31/19: TomCat's comment below is right on target. As of today, some of Sprigg's mystery novels are available from Moonstone Press, the indie outfit I alluded to in the paragraph above. The Perfect Alibi is one of four mystery and detective novels by Christopher St. John Sprigg that they have reprinted. The link to The Perfect Alibi will take you to Moonstone's ordering page for that title. I see that only 100 copies are available. I have no idea how many have been bought so far or if that count will be adjusted as new copies are purchased. Get yours now before all 100 copies are gone.

19 comments:

  1. "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."

    You shouldn't get too excited, but Moonstone Press has updated their website. They removed the promised release date of September, 2018, but also added brand new cover designs for Crime in Kensington, A Fatality in Fleet Street, The Perfect Alibi and Death of a Queen. So it looks like they're still planning on releasing them at some point in the future.

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  2. How very dare you John! 'Marmite ' is not a horrid food product but the stuff of legend. If you've never eaten boiled eggs with Marmite "soldiers" you have never lived! The appeal "use it sparingly just now" would suggest it was a wartime advert when rationing was in place.

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    1. There I go putting my foot in it again. Thanks for the education on the benefits of that miracle food Marmite. I will go hang my head in shame in an ignominious corner with a sign around my neck “Just another ignorant American boor.”

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    2. Way to go Mike :)

      In the UK of course Marmite is literally the definition of 'you love it or hate it". Me I love it, and I am an incredible vanilla / unadventurous non-gourmand.

      I wouldn't eat it with eggs though ....

      All the best matey,

      Sergio

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  3. Amazon UK is currently offering a p/b printing of The Perfect Alibi for £8 -99. Publisher uncertain but it looks like one of their own. Seems to be only available to Prime customers - something I resist personally. Possibly via Kindle too. Yes I'm British but Marmite is a taste I've yet to acquire ! I think those Cherry Tree editions date from just after WW2 when rationing still continued. I dimly recall seeing some around on my parents' shelves as a child but was deterred by the cheap and nasty appearance of the books not to mention the dreary cover design. Withy Grove is in Manchester. Subject to correction but this publisher may subsequently have evolved into World Distributors - Mike Vawdrey

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    1. That copy of The Perfect Alibi as a digital book is only available for purchase to people who live in England and Europe. US buyers cannot get that Kindle copy due to the DRM restrictions. The same may not be true of the paperback, but I have no desire to purchase a copy of a pirated edition. I know that the legions of fans of eBooks love these readily available (and ridiculously cheap) books and which use Amazon's services to create and print the books, but the author's estate/executor is receiving nothing from such pirated books. How do I know it's pirated? There is no copyright information whatsoever in the book. Ergo, not published by a reputable company.

      Looks as if this was created from a 1st edition and begrudgingly I'll admit that's a good thing. My Cheery Tree Book has no chapter headings ("Chapter 1. Corpse at the Wheel", etc.) as this one does, and I've already seen a few sentences missing from my edition which I knew had to be abridged. I've been waiting for proof and at last I have it.

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    2. Interestingly if you go via the Bookfinder route the edition being sold by Amazon UK is listed as published by Moonstone Press. In the lack of any other relatively affordable opportunity to acquire (and more important actually read) this novel I could be tempted ! The World Distributors reference is to a Manchester based publisher which specialised in comics and childrens' annuals from roughly the 1950s through to the late 1980s. It had developed from a bookselling business founded by three brothers in the mid 1940s. It's at least a possibility that Cherry Tree Books/Withy Grove Press was an early venture into publishing from this source before they entered the presumably more profitable zone of comic (books) /annuals. More detailed background on World Distributors can be found on some comic collectors' sites - Mike Vawdrey

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  4. Thanks for your informative and entertaining review! I love that Marmite ad .... the font less so. Given your enthusiasm about this book, I do hope to see that Moonstone Press release soon.

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    1. This was a great mystery novel and one of the most consistently entertaining I’ve read this year. Let’s hope it shows up in a handsomely designed (and proofread!) reprint soon.

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  5. I have this in hardcover with the dust jacket, heh. Good book.

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    1. Impressive. You must’ve paid a hefty price, I’m guessing. Would you be willing to share a photo of the DJ so I can post it here?

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    2. Sure, I'll check upstairs, the Spriggs should all be together, fingers crossed. No, I rarely pay "hefty prices." I buy too many for that!

      I got the book and read it before I started my blog, probably a decade or more ago. I think it was about $45-$65, American edition. It was what got me started on Sprigg. Some of my earliest blog posts were about him.

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  6. Self correction - I now realise that my previous speculation about a possible link between Cherry Tree Books/Withy Grove Press and the later World Distributors is incorrect - a wee small hours flight of fancy which doesn't hold up in the cold light of day !with apologies - Mike Vawdrey

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  7. His is a name I have been coming across since I first started reading crime fiction a lot of years ago. I have always meant to read him, and this one sounds terrific. If I can find a way to read it I will.

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  8. Tempting us as always with hard to find books! Is this an abridged version? I've read a couple of Cherry Tree editions and they always seem to end incredibly abruptly.

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    1. Yes, my copy is abridged. I think all of them are. This one I managed to find missing sentences in the first chapter by comparing it to the digital preview for the eBook being sold online. That was proof enough that it’s abridged.

      You can get a Kindle copy of this one (the true 1st, not abridged) from the UK Amazon site. And oddly there is also a paperback edition. They seem to have sprung up overnight. They weren’t there when I was typing up my post. Maybe I was only looking on the US site. Anyway...It’s well worth the very affordable price, I’d say. Such an excellent book!

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    2. They must have read your review lol
      Thanks for putting me onto the Amazon version which does come in paperback. Getting a copy of this seems much more likely now!

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  9. "...horrid food products like yeast extract..."! What? It's the food of the gods, and much loved on this side of the pond!

    But an excellent review of the Sprigg, so I'll forgive you.

    Best, Eric.

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    1. Another one! It's marketing slogan "Love it or hate it!" makes more and more sense to me. You and Mike Ripley ought to start a Marmite Appreciation Movement.

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