Monday, April 26, 2021

Murder's a Swine - Nap Lombard

Nap Lombard is the pseudonym used by Pamala Hansford Johnson and her first husband, Gordan Neil Stewart for the two detective novels they wrote during the war (this one in 1943, 'Tidy Death' in 1940). There's something about this arrangement that makes it tempting to speculate that there's a lot of Pamela and Gordan in the haphazard detective duo of Andrew and Agnes Kinghof. 

Pamala was a prolific author, but I think I've only read one of her books (The Honours Board) although a quick check tells me that there's a reasonable amount of them currently available, I don't know anything at all about Gordon Neil Stewart. 'Murder's A Swine' is almost slapstick comedy with just enough of a macabre edge to balance things out. It's set at the beginning of the War before the Blitz and rationing have really begun to bite and starts with Agnes, who has lost her keys, finding a decomposing body behind some sandbags in her air raid shelter. 

Bodies can't bury themselves behind sandbags so this is clearly murder, and then an old lady in the flat above starts being terrorized with pigs heads and other bacon by products. By 1943 I imagine the luxury of being able to use lard in the way it is here would have had a few readers sighing. Bodies start to pile up, and the murders themselves are never treated lightly even if almost everything else is - this is also true of a red herring sub plot about British supporters of Mussolini who are funny until suddenly they're not. 

It's a neat balancing act that generally works really well. Mostly I laughed through this book and it's tongue in cheek nonsense about stockings and haircuts, good legs and plain faces - then it would bring me up short with something genuinely horrible. Sometimes that was the antics of the murderer, but what's really staying with me is the fascist sympathiser who recognises Agnes Kinghof after she's followed him, abducts her from an ARP training exercise which he's also a part of, threatens her, and then does it again because he knows where she lives.

When Agnes tries to call the local police after this incident she mistakenly dials a wrong number which is out of order - the fear she feels knowing that this man could be sitting on her doorstep is too easy to imagine. There's another side plot about a young man trying to prove an alibi which is completely compelling too (I'd love to give some spoilers and discuss this, and am making an absolute effort not to).

Finally, this feels very much like a book of it's time - it could only have come out of the War, and a time of general oddness and upset routines. Almost anything could happen under cover of the blackout, and there's more than a sense that the humour belongs to people who have lived under a prolonged period of stress. It's an excellent and interesting addition to the British Library Crime Classics series.

I hesitate to say that this series gets better and better, but the books from the last couple of years have been particularly to my taste - partly because of my enthusiasm for John Dickson Carr, and an unexpected love of 1950's crime fiction, and maybe because as time goes on and it's become thoroughly established there's just more for everybody. 'Murder's A Swine' pushes lots of buttons for me in terms of it's humour, eccentricity, and darkness. It's quite likely that there will be Golden Age purists who don't think much of it, but I loved it and thoroughly recommend it. 

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