“As an account like the present one unfolds I am aware that the persons involved in it should become increasingly suspect. My trouble, as I again returned to the struggle the following day, was that as I went along everyone was getting less suspect.”
The sunny streets of Nice seem very far away from revolution-torn Santa Rica. That is, until an assassin’s bullet narrowly misses the Santa Rican consul, killing a passerby. Jane and Dagobert Brown wind up with a front-row seat to murder; in fact, the fatal bullet may have been fired from their hotel. Several of their fellow guests have ties to Santa Rica, and none of them are very upset over the death of Major Hugh Arkwright. Is one of them the killer—and which man was the intended victim?
Unlike the other guests at the Pension Victoria, Major Arkwright was a long-time resident, eking out a small pension by teaching French, along with other sources of income. The owner, Mrs. Andrioli, seems to have been quite cozy with the Major. Iris Makepeace is having a splendid time in Nice with her lover Pierre. Their time together is limited, however, since Iris’s husband Harry is on his way back from Santa Rica. Unless, of course, he’s already arrived. Elinor Duffield spent an epic summer on the Riviera in 1927. Now widowed, she hopes to relive those glory days through her daughter Sophie, who couldn’t be less interested. In fact, Sophie has only two interests. One is black marketer Joe Orsini, whose bar is within shooting distance of the Pension. Sophie’s other hobby is her daily French lesson with Major Arkwright, until she abruptly quits. Surely it’s just a coincidence that Joe gives the Major a black eye that same day. And that the Major ends up dead just a short time later.
The conceit behind this series is that Jane, a mystery novelist, is writing up their adventures more or less as they happen (probably the very book we’re reading, omg!) So the plot is necessarily slapdash, mostly comprising Jane’s humorous observations of the characters and situations she encounters. The actual investigation, such as it is, is mostly performed by Dagobert on his own and therefore hidden from the reader. Impulsive, dramatic, and supremely confident, Dagobert never lets the facts interfere with a good theory. He is delighted by the idea of himself as a detective but seems more surprised than anyone when he actually solves the crime. Jane’s occasional baffling glimpses of her husband at work are probably funnier than following him in the narrative would be, as when she briefly spots him at a café disguised as an Arab rug merchant.
Corpse Diplomatique is not for the impatient. The mystery takes too long to get underway, and would probably be impossible for the reader to solve. (The solution is based on information we were not given—but then again, neither was Dagobert. His scientific method consists largely of lucky guesses.) If you find the Browns funny and charming, as I do, you will forgive them all that.
The appeal of Jane and Dagobert is their humor and pleasure in each other’s foibles. Jane’s tolerance, in particular, is amazing. If I were married to Dagobert, he would have been murdered about a hundred times over, and there wouldn’t be any mystery about it, either. He is just as supportive of his wife as she is of him, however. The Browns just take things as they come. Here, their accepting nature even extends to the killer, whose fate was surprising.
And occasionally Ames shares some true wisdom for the ages:
Brightly I had worn that new pair of suède sandals which had looked so smart yet practical in Raoul’s window in the Avenue de la Victoire. Dagobert had congratulated me on their purchase, but wondered if it might have been wiser to have bought them in my own size. With a further mile and a half to hobble before I reached home I began to think how depressingly right he had been.
Cars whizzed past unfeelingly, not one of them, of course, a taxi, and I wistfully eyed the wicker chairs of a pavement café, but remembered how fatal it is on these occasions to falter. Walking in shoes too small for you is like fighting against the temptation to sleep when you’re snowbound and in danger of freezing to death. You must go on. If you pause you are lost.
It’s rather wonderful to find a passage like this reaching across the decades. I recently had this exact experience,* minus the murder, and seventy years from now, people will still be taking ill-advised walks in uncomfortable shoes.
As the French would say (probably), plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
*If my sister is reading this, they were not the shoes you got me for my birthday. Those shoes are perfect and I should have worn them instead.
I’m having trouble containing my enthusiasm for this book, so I won’t. I only merely LOVED IT!
I found the beginning of the book very confusing, and wondered if I’d missed a chapter or two out at one point, as there appeared to have been all kinds of people and events that I had no recollection of. I didn’t really get to the bottom of this, because the narrative picked up and I just carried on, enjoying the weird collection of people assembled in the boarding-house.
Corpse Diplomatique is available as an ebook.
This title has also been reprinted several times, most recently by the late lamented Rue Morgue Press, so there are quite a few physical copies floating around as well.