THE CHARACTERS: Benjamin Blaggs, a fussy banker, is the most uptight and upright of the four men on their fishing holiday. We think at first the story is going to be told exclusively through his point of view since we meet him on page one and follow him for several chapters. Once the others are introduced Orde-Powlett unleashes one of my pet peeves in Golden Age mystery fiction -- the narrative voice as a separate character. In The Cast to Death (1932) this narrative voice acts as a sort of tour guide telling us things like: "Before proceeding any further with this narrative it will be as well to describe briefly (as the examiners used to say) the general daily programme adopted by the four anglers..."
Blaggs introduces us to Reggie Lenton, a business associate certainly not friend. Loud, brash, and rambunctious Lenton has the irritating habit of slapping Blaggs on the back, laughing uproariously at the most inappropriate times and -- the worst insult of all -- calling him Ben. The others are Lenton's business partner Alfred Gascall and the oldest member of the group Henry Skane in his mid-fifties while the others range between early thirties to mid-forties. Once Reggie's body is found -- soaking wet, dragged across the ground from a fishing platform, stabbed twice on either side of his upper chest and a scraping wound on his neck -- the story veers away from Blaggs' point of view and we get a wide variety of characters to follow.
|The author, age 55
(courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)
Skane also gets some good scenes when he teams up with Tony Rillington and offers some inside information about Lenton's fishing habits and routine. Each of the three surviving anglers gets to shine in one way or another as the murder investigation takes two routes. Farnis and his narrow minded approach is contrasted with Rillington's more wide ranging style highlighted by several ingenious re-enactments of events on the night of the murder and some subtle questioning and keen observations.
Rillington belongs to that select group of eccentric amateur detectives who have a talent for abstract thinking and get by on gregarious charm. James Lenton, the victim's brother, describes Tony as "a friend of mine, who has made the science of crime detection both his business and his hobby. He is not a private detective in the ordinary sense; in fact, he refuses more cases than he accepts..." Tony is "young, virile and good looking." Of course! He has a quiet sense of humor and is very affable. Blaggs, the fussbudget who dislikes nearly everyone, takes an immediate shine to the young man. He is later belittled for this "man crush" by Gascall. I liked the way Rillington went about questioning the suspects allowing them to feel comfortable with him, letting them to talk too much thus revealing info they might otherwise never have offered up. The only drawback to Tony's investigation is one scene where he goes off to interview a publicist for a travelling circus that take place offstage. The novel would have been improved had that scene been presented to the reader.
|Map of the crime scene in The Cast to Death, as drawn by Tony Rillington
(click to enlarge)
That travelling circus tripped me up. I thought for sure that this murder mystery would employ one of my favorite oddball detective novel motifs -- a character who is a knife thrower. I was wrong on that account, but the circus still plays an important part in the finale. It's just that Orde-Powlett has Rillington announce its significance in an eleventh hour moment that made me cry out "So unfair!"
The rest of the primary cast includes Mrs. Helton, landlady of "The Crystal Ball", the inn where the anglers are staying; Mother Dawn, a gypsy woman who lives in a nearby caravan; her daughter Mollie, a ravishingly beautiful but feeble-minded servant at the inn; and Jack, Mrs. Helton's teenage son who serves as the anglers' guide and ghillie. Minor characters include various unnamed witnesses called in at the inquest by the equally anonymous coroner.
Speaking of the coroner... Infuriatingly, all of Chapter 19 is a rehash of the inquest when it is re-adjourned and we go through the entire first half of the book again. Plus, we must endure the coroner summarizing the entire testimony of the witnesses to the inquest's jury. In total we get three iterations of one inquest, two of those versions appear in the same chapter!
INNOVATIONS: The murder method is perhaps the only reason to read this book should you ever be lucky enough to find a copy. The plot is something of an impossible crime as Tony Rillington learns that no one was seen going anywhere near Reggie Lenton from the several witnesses who happened to be within viewing distances of the anglers alongside the river. How then was Lenton stabbed in three places by a long cylindrical blade resembling a lead pencil? Tony also determines that none of the three other vacationers were likely to have committed the crime no matter how much the evidence and uncovered motives seem to implicate two of the men. The clueing related to the murder method is somewhat fair, but there are only two bits of information given to the reader in the narrative prior to the solution and one is rather blatant. Exactly how that one blatant clue relates to the way the murder is carried out is left to the reader's imagination. Rillington reveals all in the final chapter and when he tells Supt. Farnis how the wounds were administered to Reggie Lenton the reader is apt to squirm. It's a grisly way to meet one's demise.
THINGS I LEARNED: The Cast to Death takes its place alongside the handful of other vintage detective novels and mysteries using the sport of fly fishing as its background. Other notable angling mysteries include Bleeding Hooks by Harriet Rutland, Death Is No Sportsman by Cyril Hare, Five Red Herrings by Sayers and Scales of Justice by Marsh. When I went trolling the internet for other fly fishing mysteries I found a cascade of modern mysteries, close to 80, including an entire series about a washed-up private eye and fly fisherman who lives in a ramshackle home in Montana decorated with fishing flies. That series by Keith McCafferty totals seven books and sports such evocative titles as The Royal Wulff Murders, The Gray Ghost Murders and Cold Hearted River.
|"The Strike" - watercolor painting by T. Victor Hall (circa late 1930s)
The fly fishing lore and background is even more detailed in The Cast to Death than in the only other fly fishing mystery I've written about here (Bleeding Hooks). Orde-Powlett uses terminology I was unaware of. Perhaps it's outdated now, that I can't tell you. For instance, I always thought a rod and reel used fishing line. The characters refer to this as the cast. Not just using the word as a verb but as a noun to describe the line that the flies are tied to.
Also, 1930s fishing line was obviously not made of plastic filament as it is today but instead made of woven or braided textiles like silk and linen. When the line got saturated it would sink rather than float and so anglers would have to grease the cast. A tin of fisherman's grease and where it is found at the crime scene is one piece of puzzling evidence that seems to incriminate one of the anglers, but Rillington proves its location clears the man of all suspicion.
QUOTES: "We found the clue all right. Rillington found it; but I saw it afterwards, quite plainly."
"What was it?"
"Two holes in the end of the plank [where Lenton was fishing]. It solves the whole case."
"How on earth does it do that?" Gascall asked.
"I haven't the least idea," Blagss admitted, "but Rillington said so, and I feel confident that he is right."
"Your trust in that fellow is positively childish," Gascall exclaimed impatiently. "If he told you the moon was inhabited by giraffes I believe you would believe him.
|Nigel Orde-Powlett, age 28
(courtesy of National Portrait Gallery)
Nigel like many of his family was military man, served in two wars, and later became Justice of Peace for the magistrates' courts. He was Deputy Lieutenant of County of North Yorkshire and a member of the Royal Agricultural Society. For the Society he wrote several monographs on horticulture and forestry. In 1956 he authored Profitable Forestry (Faber & Faber, 1956). In addition to his two detective novels my bibliographic research turned up a volume of poetry Vale, and Other Poems (Ballantine & Co, 1918) apparently published privately while he was in Eton College.
EASY TO FIND? Although this was the only book of the two mysteries from Orde-Powlett that was published in both the US (Houghton Mifflin, 1932) and the UK (Ernest Benn, 1932) it is still absurdly scarce. In my search today I found absolutely no copies for sale online. That is not to say that some seller who eschews online catalogs may have it...somewhere. Academic and public library listings reveal eight copies in US libraries, three in UK libraries and one at the University of Sydney, Australia.
His other detective novel Driven Death (1933) was released only in the UK also by Ernest Benn. Not a single copy of the second book is offered for sale. And according to Worldcat.org only one copy is extant and held by the British Library, St. Pancras. Now that's a rare book!