Monday, May 15, 2017

Verdict of Twelve - Raymond Postgate

This is another British Library publication that I've been sitting in for far to long, this time from the crime classics series. My general enthusiasm for this series is no secret, but 'Verdict of Twelve' is something special. There have been some real gems over the years, but sometimes they've been gems because they're so very much of their time, fun and nostalgic in about equal measure and solidly entertaining with it. As satisfying and interesting as they've been, it's easy enough to see why they fell out of print. 'Verdict of Twelve' is more than that.

It's true that a book that uses a Saki story ('Sredni Vashtar') as a significant clue was always going to win my heart. It's true too that the description of Raymond Postgate in the back blurb "a socialist journalist and historian, and founder of the Good Food Guide" who "also wrote highly regarded detective novels", prejudices me entirely in his favour. But even allowing for all the partiality that comes with that I really do find it's neglect over the years bewildering.

There's such a lot to enjoy. Part one introduces us to the jury, with some of their past histories - which will of course inform their verdict on the evidence - explored. These are all more or less unexpected, some are shocking, all are handled deftly, and quite frankly the books earned it's money already at this point.

Part two covers the case the jury have to consider, it's a pitch perfect blend of black humour and genuine tragedy. An unhappy, not particularly lovable, and orphaned child, is trapped in a house with his sort of aunt. Neither have any other family, or any affection for each other. The question when the boy dies is was it an accident, murder, illness, or suicide. The Saki reference provides suggests all sorts of inferences as well as humour, but Postgate never lets us forget that there's a bitterly unhappy child and that he's died.

Part three is the trial and verdict where the jury pit their personalities against each other to try and decide the fate of another human life (it's hanging for the defendant if she's found guilty). At this point we know only a very little more than the jury does, and not enough to know exactly what happened- though we probably all have the same suspicions, which the jury does not.

Finally there's a postscript that in a final twist delivers all the answers. Knowing the answer makes very little difference to the enjoyment of the book (so cheat if you want to) because whilst it explains what happened, it's the why that's been built up all the way through that really matters.

I cannot overstate how good this one was. Please read it and judge for yourself (it's really good).
Even more so if you have a soft spot for Saki.

Updates. There's a second Postgate joining the Crime Classics series in September when Somebody At The Door is reissued. It seems he also wrote, amongst other things, a book on Portuguese wine in 1969. I'm almost tempted to order a copy to see what he has to say on the subject. Currently, in my wine selling day job, Portuguese wine (especially the reds, which are easier to find) would be my hot tip for something really interesting that doesn't cost the earth. Much as with Raymond Postgate I don't understand why it isn't a bigger thing. The more I find out about him the better he sounds.


  1. You reeled me in! Couldn't track it down through the library but managed to find it on Kindle Unlimited and looking forward to reading it. Thanks for the recommendation.

    1. I really enjoyed this one, and the way it focuses on characters and motivation. I really hope you like it as much as I did.

  2. Sredni Vashtar has kept its grip on a corner of my mind ever since it was read aloud to me as a schoolgirl! I wonder if teachers nowadays ever introduce children to the extraordinary delights of Saki - would he be regarded as not quite politically correct? Thanks for recommending what sounds like an excellent (though possibly haunting?) read.

    1. Last time I was in London I saw that Vintage have a new edition of his complete short stories out, so hopefully a few new readers will discover him. Sredni Vashtar is a hard one to forget, and the way it's used here (the outline is explained later in the book for those who might not know it already) is brilliant. If you do know it, and I assume that most people that read Verdict of Twelve will, the first mention of it is a giant flashing light for what's coming. It reinforces what an unhappy child the possible victim is as well without being heavy handed about it. I do love Saki.

      There's enough humour in Verdict of Twelve to balance what could otherwise be quite a bleak book and make it something special. I really, really, recommend it.