So we have the setting for a possible art heist, don’t we? And it all sounds very much like Ormerod’s sophomore mystery novel, The Silence of the Night, previously reviewed here at PSB. The security system, Chinese vases, fake art work, a burglary and a violent death that might be accident or might be murder are all features of that other novel. But there the similarity ends. There is no theft – fake or otherwise – in this novel. It’s an unequivocal murder that takes place.
Like most of Ormerod’s books we also are dealing with a crime in the past in the intricate plot. The victim is former police detective Roy Towers, currently Bruno’s newest security man and a painter in his own right. And he was the lead detective responsible for arresting a murderer in a crime of passion that involved Roy's former mistress. That murderer, now behind bars, has a wife who is hounding Roy for sending her husband to prison. The oddity is that woman was Roy’s mistress and the reason for the murder her husband was convicted for. That old murder case seems to be at the core of the motive for the killing that takes place at Bruno’s estate.
Roy’s odd hobby is taking part in the bi-weekly art seminars and working on an acrylic still life that gives the book its title. He has painted the same still life made up of a Chinese vase with yellow flowers, a hunter’s trumpet and a pistol (see the illustrations on the dust jackets) for several months. The full set is handled by a gallery owner in London and bizarrely the paintings are extremely popular and sell quite regularly. [Still lifes popular in the 80s? And selling repeatedly? Hard to believe.] Roy’s latest painting and the still life props are crucial to the plot of this mystery. Most interesting is that the novel involves not one, but two impossible problems! Nowhere is this indicated on the book jacket of my copy or anywhere else. You won’t know this until you actually read the book...or this review.
This impossible problem reminded me of the clever ideas Edward D. Hoch dreamt up in the hundreds of stories he wrote for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. It would be a fantastic idea for a short story. But it wears out its welcome in this novel. The two possible solutions can be thought out rather quickly by any reader with a modicum of common sense. Richard and Amelia come up with the more improbable of the two solutions. But it takes Inspector Poynton to point out to Richard the real explanation of how the gun was used to kill Roy and still end up on the table in the exact spot with the flower petals undisturbed.
What does keep the book interesting as a murder mystery is trying to figure out which one of the guests at the art seminar killed Roy. There are multiple suspects and multiple motives, some of which are trickily exposed in the usual surprise-filled chapters Ormerod so often delivers in his crime fiction. The second impossible problem, one of lesser intricacy but still quite baffling, is the puzzle of the Chinese vase and the nine fakes up on display in a corridor upstairs. How did the genuine vase used in the still life get switched with a fake one after the murder when the studio was locked and sealed? And why is one of the artists who is interested in recreating that Chinese vase so intent on getting into the studio to use the kiln to fire his vase?
But... even lesser Ormerod is good Ormerod. Unlike Reginald Hill who criticized his mystery writer colleague for being overly complicated in devising his crime plots and accusing him of being a failure I disagree. I’ll keep coming back for more. Roger Ormerod has a fascinating and teeming imagination. There was enough here to tantalize me and keep me reading to the end.
I have more Roger Ormerod books to read and more reviews planned throughout the summer. Stay tuned!