“We mustn’t,” said the Superintendent, “forget there are other people who would bear looking into. The trouble, in fact, seems to be that there may be too many.”
There are 125 good reasons to kill Henry Grayling. 124 of them are the pound notes in his briefcase, tomorrow’s payroll for the chemical works. The other is his own repellent personality.
During a treacherous winter train commute, Grayling spends his last conscious hour surrounded by people he hates, only to collapse on his own doorstep. His death is a strange one, even for this unhealthy time of year. Still, no one is prepared to learn that Grayling was poisoned with mustard gas in the middle of a crowded train compartment. As Inspector Holly tracks down the other passengers, he learns that each has a story to tell. But will it be enough to capture a killer?
Somebody at the Door is a brilliant collection of stories about the lives of ordinary Britons during World War II. The problem is that sometimes Raymond Postgate forgets that he’s supposed to be writing a mystery novel as well. Many of the suspects on the train have an elaborate backstory that illuminates the culture of the era. This doesn’t leave a lot of time to solve a murder and, indeed, the solution is just kind of plunked in there at the end on very specious grounds. Despite such shortcomings, however, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed getting to know these characters.
The police inquiry unsurprisingly focuses on the passengers who were personally known to the victim. The vicar had clashed with Grayling over political and religious matters. Chemist’s assistant Evetts feared being sacked by the murdered man, while Corporal Ransom’s position in the Home Guard is under threat from him. Hugh Rolandson is suspiciously close to Grayling’s younger wife, Renata, and she gets a look-in as well. As for the German refugee Manning, well, he’s German. Isn’t that enough?
Each mini-narrative contains fascinating details of life during wartime. Ransom’s experiences in the Blitz are especially haunting:
When he had gone a little way further north he stepped into a strange world. Suddenly he could see only a few yards before him. It reminded him of the title of a novel he had seen in shops recently. Darkness at Noon. “Darkness at Noon”; he repeated it to himself. Smoke eddied round him, blown by the wind, capriciously clearing and thickening. He picked his way over unnumbered coils of huge hoses, which lay like snakes across the road. Sometimes one would twitch as if it were alive; there is enormous power in one of those great hoses full of water. Water lay in great lakes in the road, filling the gutters. Firemen came out of the fog towards him and passed by, looking through him with the stony stare of men in the last stages of tiredness who must still go on working. He got anxiously out of their way, tripping over a hose and soaking one leg to the knee. As he walked on, anxiety now rising in his heart, he noticed the pack became closer. Women and girls, clearly office workers, formed the majority, but there was a sprinkling of city men. They seemed to him to be walking round and round, as if they had lost their direction. He was reminded of some caterpillars that he had once been shown at the Zoo; he had been told that they had no intelligence, only instinct, and that if once you started them walking round in a circle they would go on, patiently and aimlessly, till they died.
These characters feel like real people with real lives. The author adds little twists and bits of cynical humor to keep the stories from being too predictable. While some of the suspects are active in the war effort, no one is especially noble—they mostly worry about their own concerns. The one moment of genuine patriotism is undercut by irony. Inspector Holly, upon learning that a suspect has just enlisted, actually moves him down the suspect list, instead of wondering why he’s in such a hurry to get away.
Postgate does make an effort to explain the philosophy behind this novel through Inspector Holly:
[The suspects] could not ever be of interest to him again; they were only of interest to him now because of something which, very probably, did not concern them at all and wasn’t even known to them. At one minute of time, if he was successful, all but one of these people would suddenly become not significant at all to him. They would vanish, and one important figure along would remain. The story of Councillor Grayling, for all but one of them, was an irrelevance in the pattern of their lives. The light it threw on them and the character it gave them was for all but one false and meaningless. Indeed, there was no pattern.
Somebody at the Door is full of memorable characters and scenes from the opening moments, which unflinchingly depict the horrors of a winter commute. (“The passengers were silent, seeming to dislike each other’s company. Most had colds; all were cold.” I read this on the bus during an unseasonable March snow and it was too real.) Still, there’s no overlooking the fact that this is a collection of literary short stories with a murder mystery gently tucked around them. I found these tales compelling enough to overcome the lack of a real investigation, but I do wish the mystery was more prominent.
I would go as far as saying that the intensity and depth of these back stories, (with one backstory becoming a mystery within a mystery), almost detract from and take over the initial mystery, which is solved in a somewhat perfunctory way in the final chapter. The imbalance makes this story more of a character study than a mystery, though as a character study I would say it is first rate, with its darker and un-tinted depiction of wartime Britain, which does creep increasingly into the final solution of the book.
I actually found this a really interesting and intriguing book. The plot is almost secondary to the almost short story approach to each character, which reveals more than strictly necessary to potential involvement in the murder. Consequently this is not a mystery to read quickly because of the plot and the need to find the guilty person; I found each character’s story well written and providing a fascinating insight into everyday life in wartime. This is not a cheerful read but a well written novel of people in all their weaknesses.
I did start to flag a little in the middle of the book, some of these back stories are so detailed – that they become a little tedious. I was keen to find out who did it – and of course I had my own theories – it just seemed to take a while to get there. I would also have liked to know more about Inspector Holly.
Somebody at the Door is available in paperback and ebook from British Library Crime Classics and, in the US, Poisoned Pen Press