Alfred Hitchcock, Britain’s most famous film director of the day has summoned actors, cameramen and some of his acquaintances to stay in the village as he prepares for his next film. They are all anxious as they know he is watching them to decide if they will be chosen to work on it. At the same time they know he is prone to complicated practical jokes in which they may need to be the willing subject. He invites Josephine Tey who has written a novel he wants to film. She comes with her friend, Archie Penrose, a Chief Inspector from the Metropolitan Police who quickly learns that a policeman is never on holiday.
Like many good crime stories the story starts many years after the events as new evidence has been provided to Archie which confirms what he was thinking in those pre-war days.
The novel then slows down to a pedestrian pace. It takes nearly 200 pages for the large number of characters to arrive, insult each other, start drinking tea or whisky and then settle into their hotel bedrooms. It feels a little as if you are at a party where everyone there knows each other well except you, the reader.
It seems that the guests either detest or lust after each other. Hitchcock provides motives for murder in addition to the ones that already exist. He has many faults which sometimes border on the psychotic but he is kept on track by his loving wife, Alma Reville, who , angel-like, is able to control his wild genius. Virtually everyone seems capable of doing something naughty or nasty. One visitor, for example, is called “Lettice” and, surely, anyone given a name like that is born to suffer.
At this stage you really hope something is going to happen. Then suddenly the plot engages top gear and moves at breathtaking speed. There is sickening violence lovingly portrayed by the author. There is heterosexual sex, gay sex, platonic no-sex and gratuitous damage to a plucky Jack Russell in the dog cemetery.
In rapid succession there are three deaths. Archie rushes round trying to take statements before any more characters disappear off the earth. Then the local bobbies come along, ignore most of the evidence and conclude that one of the bodies was the obviously guilty party. Case closed. Archie is not happy about this but there is nothing he can do.
Twenty years later Archie sits in his London flat, exhausted and retired, when an American detective brings an unexpected confession from one of the 1936 guests. Archie returns to the scene of the crime in Wales to fit the final few pieces into his personal jigsaw.
The novel is patchy ranging from exciting “unputdownability” to tedious “why am I reading this tosh”. At times it is confusing as at least two of the characters keep changing their names and not because they have got married. It is hard to keep track of who is related to, or having relations with, who. Yet there are definitely exciting parts and you might never view Alfred Hitchcock the same again, although you will admire his wife.
Will you guess who the murderer and dog abuser is? I did. I’ll give you two clues which won’t give too much away. Archie and the Jack Russell are innocent but both know more than they can say.
Shipley Reading Group