Genre: Comic mystery
Year of publication: 1946
No. in series: 3
Series detective: Gervase Fen
Type of investigator: University professor
Setting & time: Oxford, England; contemporary
Poet Richard Cadogan goes to Oxford for a holiday and due to bad planning he ends up missing the last train and hitch-hiking part of the way, arriving in Oxford in the middle of the night. While walking along a street he comes upon a toyshop with its door ajar. In he goes to let the owner know, but finds the shop empty and the body of a murdered woman in an abandoned apartment on the first floor. However, when he brings the police back to the crime scene in the morning the toyshop has been replaced by a grocery shop, the apartment looks different, and there is no body. Convinced he didn’t dream this, he turns to his old school pal, amateur sleuth Gervase Fen, who is now a don at one of the colleges, and together they embark on an attempt to explain the mystery.
This book was a surprise after the previous Gervase Fen book I read. That book was boring and the characters were mostly interchangeable and unmemorable, except for Gervase who was a conceited prick. In this third book in the series he happily seems to have undergone a personality make-over and has actually become rather likeable.
The book is written with a light touch. It begins as a typical Golden Era type puzzle mystery, briefly becomes a thriller with noir undertones (including a car chase, black-clad henchmen and a pretty damsel in distress) and from there it moves on into Keystone Cops territory, ending with two funny chase scenes with characters in various stages of inebriation chasing the villains on foot and bicycles. The eccentric plot revolves around the will of an old lady, some of whose heirs are too greedy for their own good and whose downfall is caused by Cadogan’s blundering into the middle of a crime which would otherwise have remained undetected.
The solution depends on a number of coincidences, which in my mind does not make it a good mystery, but one can see why this is such a favourite as to make both the CWA and the MWA lists because it is so highly entertaining that one is liable to forget or at least forgive the shortcomings.
An entertaining mystery, but if you want good solid detection based on diligent searching for clues rather than stumbling into them, then look elsewhere. 3 stars.