- "He'll go for anything wearing a skirt."
- "Then he should avoid Scotland."
(Sorry, but I smiled at that one.)
From 1985 to 1992, Robert Richardson wrote a spate of British mysteries starring unflappable amateur sleuth and playwright Augustus (or Gus) Maltravers. This one, THE BOOK OF THE DEAD, which came out in 1989, is interesting in that it incorporates Sherlock Holmes into the plot. Being a fan of the Great Detective, I thought I'd give this one a try.
In a coincidental turn of events, when a partly vacationing Gus Maltravers' car breaks down in a heavy downpour, the manor house on which he knocks for help is owned by Charles Carrington, whom he would've visited the very next evening. When Carrington obligingly drops off Maltravers at his intended destination, he remarks off-handedly that Gus might be interested in an original, never published Sherlock Holmes story by Arthur Conan Doyle.
It seems that the Sherlock Holmes's creator had been fast friends with Carrington's grandfather and was in fact godfather to Charles' father. For a christening present Doyle wrote a brand new Sherlock Holmes adventure and made 10 privately bound copies. Doyle never published this story, and had no wish to, as it was intended as a private gift to the Carringtons, who in turn have honored that wish. But Charles Carrington is aware of Maltravers' passion for detective fiction and lends the playwright a photocopy of the story, titled "The Attwater Firewitch." Shortly after, Carrington is savagely murdered.
The identity of the murderer largely hinges on who have read the "The Attwater Firewitch." And there's no lacking in suspects: from the much adored, philandering young wife, to the unpalatable blighter with whom she was cheating, from the priest with the secret addiction, to the bitter woman who'd long been in love with Charles. An arrest is made, but the case against the suspect isn't concrete certain. Then there's the exasperating dilemma involving the plundered safe which had contained the original and very precious Sherlock Holmes copies. To get to the bottom of this one, Maltravers finds himself leaning on the Great Detective himself for inspiration.
THE BOOK OF THE DEAD, at a mere 192 pages, made for decent reading, but it didn't exactly bowl me over, and the mystery itself didn't dazzle. The protagonist Gus Maltravers is sophisticated and clever and proves to be a competent detective, even if he comes off as a bit smug in the end. This smugness almost costs him his life and that of his actress girlfriend. Maltravers does get the job done, but, really, he seems a boring chap. Interestingly, the person I liked best wasn't the featured sleuth, but his girlfriend Tess Davy, a gutsy character who doesn't make a physical appearance until the last quarter of the book. This mystery reads at a sedate pace. After the actual murder, things don't really heat up again until almost the closing pages. I'm not sure I'll remember this story a month from now. Even the Holmes pastiche, which is included here in its entirety, is surprisingly bland, considering its supernatural elements.
Not much is known about the English author Robert Richardson in my neck of the woods. As far as I know (and I'm probably wrong), his last published work was in 1997 (Victims), and he may even have stopped writing altogether. There are at least 5 other Augustus Maltravers mysteries (beginnning with Richardson's acclaimed debut novel The Latimer Mercy), although in the mid-1990s he began to focus on writing brooding pyschological thrillers (The Hand of Strange Children, Significant Others, VICTIMS). THE BOOK OF THE DEAD is the third in the Maltravers series and the only one I've read. And, to be honest, based on this one book, I'm leaning towards the lukewarm in checking out Richardson's other stuff, even as lauded as they may be.