THE CHARACTERS: I should have found this book tiresome and routine. It is after all yet another of the myriad English country house weekends gone wrong that serve as the background for hundreds of Golden Age mystery novels. True, this familiar story is chock-full of stock characters like the annoying twit aristocrat Geoffrey Tracy who talks like a parody of Lord Peter Wimsey combined with Bertie Wooster peppering his inane sentences with "Eh whats?" and "I say ol' chaps". We also have a hard of hearing Dowager Countess with a wicked sense of humor and a barely competent Chief Constable in the person of Colonel Merryweather-Winter, a recurring character in Gerard's early detective novels. Even the blackmail plot that seems to be the motive behind the shooting of Fairfax was far from original. It all should have bored me. But it didn't.
Gerard's lively sense of humor, his love of wordplay and farce are turned on full force in Fatal Friday. In later books his love of farce is sharpened and becomes increasingly absurd the more outrageous his stories become. Though the characters seem to be carbon copies of the usual gang of suspects that populate these country house type whodunits Gerard has a knack for throwing in reversals of character traits and personalities. For example, the Dowager's hearing loss is not used as stupid comic relief but rather as a ploy to manipulate the rest of the characters and to make fun of them. She is well aware that people will talk too loudly and her supposed deafness comes and goes on a whim. She hears nearly everything and plays at being deaf only to humiliate and embarrass the guests in her son's home. I was hoping that she would turn out to be the villain and literally have the last laugh on the whole lot of them as well as the reader. But the Dowager is present merely as a comic figure. Her scenes, not at all crucial to the multiple crime plots, are some of the best in the book. The story would have been a thousand times more entertaining had she been a pistol packing mama as well a trickster who pretends to be deaf.
Fairfax, too, comes from a long line of familiar murder victims you love to hate and who come to a well deserved violent end. He's a cad of the worst sort who was rumored to have been having an affair with Lady Prunella Colchester, the Earl's much younger wife, when they were spotted at the same French hotel. Fairfax who has desired Lady C from afar never bothered to deny the rumors choosing instead to play them up and enhance the rumors with suggestive comments to the press. When he shows up again at another hotel that Lady C is staying at the press goes wild. Again, Fairfax does not deny what is clearly gossip and allows the papers to spread the story of Lady Colchester spending time not only with him but having a string of lovers.
Meredith enters the story when Geoffrey Tracy and his wife Stella learn that Prue is being blackmailed. Someone has gotten hold of steamy sexually explicit letters she wrote to a boyfriend in her past. He travelled to Malaysia to take a job on a rubber plantation and while he was gone she became engaged Lord Colchester. But all the time she carried a torch for this other man, who oddly enough is also named Gerald -- Gerald Fawcett to be specific, though he goes by the ridiculous nickname of Pussy. [What the hell is that about? This is the fourth book I've read since doing this blog where a British man is nicknamed Pussy. Beyond strange!] And why would any writer choose to give two of his male characters the same name, I hear you ask? You best not be asking that of a mystery writer. I knew immediately there was a secret purpose behind that apparent lack of imagination.
A pair of identical leather suitcases with engraved initial plates turn up. What are those initials? G.F.! Of course the suitcases are mistakenly switched and... Ta-da! The reason for the two Geralds is made clear. Or is it? Turns out those two suitcases and their contents are extremely important to the plot and the ultimate explanation of who owned them is one of the many surprises Meredith exposes in the finale.
The mystery of who shot Fairfax is also deviously plotted. Though Lord C has confessed to the crime the bullet fired from his gun is not found in Fairfax's body. A .35 caliber bullet is extracted from the body and the .35 caliber gun that fired that bullet belongs to Gerald Fawcett. He told a tale of what he did with that gun in Malaysia and how he unconsciously packed the gun out of habit and brought it with him to the house party. Everyone who heard that story the night before Fairfax was killed knows that Gerald had a gun in his room. But all events surrounding the night before and the day of the shooting keep coming back to Fawcett. His gun killed the man, his footprints were found in mud outside the open window of the library where Fairfax was shot, and Fawcett himself lies repeatedly about his whereabouts because he wants to protect Prue from further damaging her reputation. Meredith is sure that Fawcett is the murderer and arrests him.
At the inquest even the jurors return a verdict that specifically names Fawcett as the murderer. And then we read of two trials - one for Lord Colchester charged with manslaughter and one for Fawcett charged with premeditated murder. Things turn out well for one man, but not for the other. Is the story over at that point? Is it all anticlimactic and all too easily solved?
Juanita Meredith refuses to believe that Fawcett is guilty of the murder. She insists that her husband investigate further. Many a man has been hanged on circumstantial evidence she reminds her policeman husband. Don't let it happen to Gerald Fawcett. He is innocent, she protests, and her husband are responsible for that mistaken arrest and conviction. After looking into a few troubling aspects of the crime Meredith begins to see his wife's side of the story. Ultimately he finds the truth behind the blackmail scheme and Fairfax's murder. When he reveals the truth it comes as a shock to all involved.
Gerard engages in some clever plot machinations with the manner in which the murder was pulled off. It's sort of a reversal of an impossible crime or locked room mystery. Rather than a room in which all doors and windows were sealed when Gerald Fairfax was killed in a room in which all the doors and windows were open. When the bullet from Lord Colchester's gun is found embedded in the brick wall of the garden outside the police then look for where another bullet could have been fired. Lord C talks about a "echo" that followed shortly after he shot Fairfax and how Fairfax didn't fall immediately after he fired his gun. That echo Meredith determines was the sound of the second gun being fired. But from where was it fired? From the gallery above the library? From outside through the window in the corner? From within the library in a cleverly hidden gizmo of some sort? The nicely drawn floor plans (included here as illustrations) come in very handy when Meredith and his police team began to look for all possibilities for the origin of that second shot.
The more I read of the John Meredith books the more I realize that Francis Gerard was a genuine fan of detective novels. Often he makes allusions to the genre itself and it happens here again when the contents of one of those suitcases reveals, among many other items, a handful of mystery novels by Sayers, Carr, Christie and Charteris. He enjoyed playing with conventions, upending expectations of stock characters and their cliched personalities, and devised some clever criminal plot twists. As the series went on the books become more fantastical as he added aspects of fantastic adventures, supernatural and occult, and even elements of the lost race subgenre. One thing is for sure with their offbeat sense of humor and an outrage for amorality and wickedness these books are never dull.