Normally I only write a long essay like this if I’ve pretty much read all of the work by the author in question. I’m going to make an exception in the case of Joan Fleming because I have quite a large bit of her work – and I’m looking for the rest, which is quite difficult to find at reasonable prices. Fleming was a British mystery writer who might be compared to Josephine Bell or Charity Blackstock in that she didn’t have a recurring detective, and used a variety of viewpoint characters and settings. Her first and third novels, Two Lovers Too Many (1949) and The Gallows in My Garden (1951) are among those I haven’t yet found, but her second, A Daisy Chain for Satan (1950) was the one that made me look for the rest. As always, be aware that there will be spoilers below.
The protagonist is an elderly man who returns to England to live near his nephew (whom we later learn is secretly his son). The nephew, Silas, has married a beautiful but enigmatic woman named Sigtuna, who spends a great deal of her time in London and whom we suspect from the outset is having an affair. Silas, who is not the brightest light on the tree, fights with her about this but refuses to see the truth. They also have an odd agreement by which they have to live on his relatively meager income despite the fact that she is wealthy in her own right, and she chafes under the need to forego the luxuries she normally would indulge in. Her invalid father, a thoroughly unpleasant man, is also in the household, and visitors include Sigtuna’s best friend, a woman with no visible means of support.
Our protagonist, Uncle Tom, makes friends with a local artist and eventually decides that this nephew/son has married very badly indeed. His suspicions grow more vivid when the invalid is found drowned in the river. Tom’s reconstruction of events convinces him that he was murdered by his own daughter, although the authorities accept that it was an accidental death. Unwisely, he confronts her and a due of wills and wits ensues which she seems destined to win. Sigtuna is in many ways one of the most fully realized and devious villains in detective fiction and her further plans are only thwarted by mischance. She does convince everyone in sight, including Silas, that Tom is mentally ill and cannot be left to his own devices, thus enabling herself to keep a closer eye on him. The supporting cast is also quite well drawn.
A crisis is reached when Sigtuna’s former husband turns up unexpectedly. There is a confrontation, an explosion, and she takes her boat out for a late night cruise from which she never returns. She is discovered the next day drowned, with the back of her head bashed in by the proverbial blunt object. The police investigation is mostly offstage but we are led through a series of surprise revelations that turn our suspicions from one person to the next. There is an interesting contrast in that the invalid’s murder is never assumed to be anything but an accident – although we know better – and that Sigtuna’s death, which turns out to be an accident, is assumed by all involved to have been a homicide. All of this is carried off with surprising depth of characterization and considerable complexity of both the plot and the interweaving of the various personalities. When I first read this back in 1970, I was hooked and it’s just as effective after the gap of nearly forty years.
Fleming’s fourth novel was The Man Who Looked Back (1951, aka A Cup of Cold Poison). It’s more of a character study than a mystery novel. The protagonist, Roy Unithorne, is an egomaniac who believes women are inordinately compelled to minister to his needs. He murders his first wife – although we aren’t absolutely sure of this at first – and moves to London convinced that he will be fully appreciated there, although the two women he courts are frustratingly immune to his charms and his new employer doesn’t seem to realize how important he is. He steps in front of a bus by accident and is hospitalized for months and convalescent afterward, during which time his landlady and her daughter become very involved with him, although eventually they observe character traits which make them wary of him. He has also attracted the interest of the fiancé of the woman he turned down his marriage proposal, who notices contradictions in the story of the dead wife and begins investigating.
Unithorne is, despite his own opinion of himself, not very intelligent despite having had a few brilliant ideas and his plans rapidly fall apart. He murders his landlady in the same fashion as he did his wife in order to avoid being evicted, but the daughter steadfastly refuses to marry him despite his conviction that she would have no other choice given her new circumstances. Even when the police begin to investigate, he is convinced that his position is invincible and that he has covered all of his tracks. And behind it all Fleming leaves us threads about the location of the wife’s body, based on the actions of a cat and some missing slats from a coal chute.
I haven’t seen her next, Polly Put the Kettle On (1952) but I have the one that followed. The Good and the Bad (1953) was Fleming’s sixth novel. Structurally it resembles The Man Who Looked Back in that it follows the story of a criminal from his point of view and does not involve a mystery. It also bears some resemblance to Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar. Ginger is a petty crook who takes refuge in Paris when things get too hot for him in England. There he meets Marie Celeste, widow of a self exiled English painter, mother of a mentally disabled young man Ginger’s age. The threesome lead a precarious existence financially for some time before Ginger and Marie contrive a plot. Her father in law is, they believe, a wealthy man who has never seen his grandson, who is now his only living relative. Nor does he know that the boy is impaired.
Their plan is to travel to England where Ginger will pretend to be the Frenchborn son and heir. In order to do that, they must first get rid of the real grandson, and Marie poisons her son, convinced that he would never be accepted by his grandfather. Upon arriving in England, however, they discover that Sir Matthew is living in a small cottage on a limited allowance, although he eventually reveals that his income is from a substantial investment which will be divided between one of his dead wife’s relatives and his supposed grandson when he dies. Marie begins to have regrets – Ginger is unreliable and may not be able to maintain the charade, and she suspects she would have been better off arriving with her real son. Ginger, on the other hand, is impatient and not sure he wants to go through with the fraud.
Predictably things fall apart quickly. An unsavory young woman discovers part of the subterfuge and begins blackmailing Ginger. They in turn are overheard by the girl’s foster mother, who also discovers that Ginger is a thief. And then Marie dies unexpectedly, leaving Ginger trapped in his own miscarried plot. It is almost a relief when he threatens and a pawn broker and is shot to death. Although it’s an impressive character study, the story itself is less than compelling this time, in large part because it’s obvious that their plans cannot possibly succeed.
He Ought To Be Shot (1955) is another I’ve missed, but I have The Deeds of Dr. Deadcert (1955, aka The Merry Widower). Jethro Jones is an American journalist taking a vacation in a remote English town. His arrival is heralded by the death of a woman hit by a train, presumed to be suicide, and shortly after arriving her overhears a conversation between a woman who has recently come into a substantial legacy and Dr. Dysert, who wants her to marry him, possibly for her money, and who appears to be using hypnosis to convince her. Her sudden illness is also suspicious, particularly as it follows the death of the doctor’s third wife and her own decision to leave the area. The treacherous husband with a penchant for poison is obviously a recurring theme in Fleming’s work. The novel was filmed as Rx for Murder (1958).
As we hear in more detail the deaths of Dysert’s three wives, it is more than obvious that he was responsible. Fleming cheats a little by not revealing until the second half of the novel that his third wife was previously married to Jones, suggesting that he is not on vacation after all and that he had previous knowledge of the existence of Dysert. A fairly good suspense novel but once again there is not much mystery involved.
Passing over another missing book, You Can’t Believe Your Eyes (1957), we come to Maiden’s Prayer (1957). Once again we have a complex relationship between a man and a woman, with the former exploiting and plotting the murder of the latter. In this case, Miss Maiden has recently become independent thanks to the death of her domineering mother. She plans to sell her house and move to the country and in the course of this activity she meets Brian Aladdin, a confidence man who offers to work as her secretary and sell her furniture and other unwanted possessions more profitably than if they were moved as a lot. He is quite successful, although he cheats her of some undefined portion of the profits.
The situation grows more complex when she catches him in the act of absconding with most of her money. Instead of turning him over to the police, she becomes engaged to him and continues to allow him to live in her house. Slowly the balance of power between them begins to shift, but even when he tries twice to kill her, she refuses to evict him, although she acknowledges to herself that the marriage and business partnership will never be consummated. Although aspects of their relationship are weirdly fascinating, I was not convinced that even Miss Maiden could be quite so naïve and reluctant to contact the authorities.
In the second half of the novel, we learn more about Brian Aladdin (actually Brian Aharne) and his past, which includes another murder and a pair of charmed and abandoned women who suspect that he may have been the killer. Everything culminates with another murder attempt, apparently successful, but with a clever twist we discover that Miss Maiden is more than a match for her nemesis and lives happily ever after. An enjoyable novel but I’d started by now to wish Fleming would vary her plots a bit more.
There’s another dysfunctional marriage in Malice Matrimonial (1959), but it takes a new direction. Henry Ormskirk is a not particularly bright young man who is jilted by the girl he thinks he loves, and immediately falls for the daughter of a prominent dress designer, whom he becomes engaged to within 24 hours of meeting her. They are subsequently married but the marriage begins to grow dull almost immediately and Henry begins flirting with his ex-girlfriend again. Not that the wife is particularly pleasant either; she is indifferent to her newborn baby and uninterested in her husband. As the tensions accumulate she reveals that the baby is not even his, that the marriage was rushed to cover up the fact that she was pregnant out of wedlock.
The mystery develops about half way through when the wife abruptly disappears. Our presumption initially is that Henry has killed her, but while all of the other characters begin to think similarly, we and the police suspect otherwise. It is possible that she has just run off to make the police believe her husband killed her, hoping that he will be executed or commit suicide, leaving his recently inherited fortune to the child. This proves not to be the case, however, because the body turns up, shot to death, and despite appearances the police still believe a third party was responsible.
It turns out to be a plot contrived by the mother-in-law, who never liked her daughter, and the girl’s first lover, who now works as a clothing designer. He killed her in a rage when she left her husband and forced herself upon him and the mother-in-law hoped – and succeeded – in getting herself named as Henry’s beneficiary, a development I did not find particularly believable. Henry’s suicide attempt fails and despite his slow wits, he eventually figures out what really happened in time to save himself and his reputation. This one kept me guessing for a while, but mostly because there were no clues provided by which we might elucidate the truth.
Miss Bones (1959) breaks the pattern somewhat and is closer to a traditional detective story. Thomas, the protagonist, is a young picture restorer who takes a job working for an art dealer who uses the name of Walpurgis. Within a few weeks, he begins to suspect that his employer is actually a fence and tries to sever his relationship, only to find himself held to a contract. Then Walpurgis disappears, as does his mysterious country friend whom no one in London has ever seen. I immediately, and correctly, assumed that both were the same man, but our hero and the police suspect that one murdered the other, or that the two skipped town together.
Eventually the missing man’s head turned up and we have only a handful of suspects – an unhappy tenant, a professional burglar, a prostitute, and a mysterious young woman. The latter two would have been unlikely even in a mystery novel, and when we finally encounter the burglar, it’s obvious that he’s innocent as well. Not that it’s necessary to winnow out the suspects. The tenant mentions early in the novel that her father used to run a slaughterhouse and the body was cut up and disposed of piecemeal. It doesn’t take an experienced mystery fan to put these two pieces together and figure out the solution. Still pretty good though.
The Man from Nowhere (1960) bears some superficial similarities. Rockambole is a wanderer who settles down in a small British town, doing odd jobs and generally being accepted as a welcome addition to the community. Then an elderly woman is beaten to death and her money stolen, and Rockambole finds her body. Although he is not immediately under suspicion, his status as the newcomer in town means that he isn’t afforded the confidence of long term residents and fingers being to point his way even though we, the reader, know from the outset that he is innocent.
Eventually there is a second death – the son of the first victim – and Rockambole finds this body as well, which provides enough of a spark that a few members of the community decide to run him out of town “for his own protection.” At this point he tells them the truth, that the dead man killed his own mother in order to inherit her surprisingly large estate, then realized that Rockambole had figured out the truth and, in a frenzy, cut his own throat. Despite this revelation, Rockambole leaves town at the end and to its surprise the town finds itself literally the poorer because of his loss. The solution is actually rather obvious all along but within the context of the story it is credible that the local people would refuse to believe – or even perceive – the truth until they had no other choice.
In the Red (1961) has another inept protagonist. Leslie Williams is going through a midlife crisis. He tells his wife that he is leaving her, then embezzles a small sum from the bank where he works as a teller. His plans to skip off to France evaporate when he discovers his wife’s body – dead he believes, although I suspected early on that he was mistaken – so he instead takes shelter in a residential hotel where he becomes involved with a flirtatious woman, a cat lover, an odd doorman, and a small time criminal. It never occurs to him that the lack of a hue and cry over his dead wife might mean he’s misinterpreted the situation, and instead he finds himself sort of engaged to the flirt. But when she turns up dead, that makes him the prime suspect.
The cat lover decides to prove him innocent and it looks like that’s how the story is going but – SPOILER ALERT – this is one of those novels like Above Suspicion by John Dickson Carr in which the author is engaging in misdirection. Williams really did kill her, under conditions of great stress which are supposed to ameliorate his crime in the reader’s eyes, although I felt no sympathy whatsoever. A good cast of disparate characters in this one and clear indications that Fleming was becoming better with practice.
That trend continued with the very atypical When I Grow Rich, which won the British Crime Fiction Award. The setting this time is Turkey and the protagonist is Nuri Bey, a rather indolent man who fancies himself a philosopher. He does a favor for Madame Miasma, an elderly woman who – unbeknownst to him – is using him as a replacement drug courier. The contact goes without problems but the man who takes the consignment kills a policeman and disappears. His girlfriend, an English teenager who has no idea what is really going on, is temporarily in possession of the drugs, which she throws into the Bosphorus. Madame Miasma, however, is unconvinced that the evidence against her has been destroyed and pursues her and Nuri Bey when the latter befriends the fugitive. There is some clever plotting involving substitute bodies and the usual strongly drawn characters make the story even more convincing.
Death of a Sardine (1963) reverts to her more usual mode, the dysfunctional family, with a murder mystery starting about halfway through, although I guessed the killer immediately. Tom Warrington has just finished at Oxford and is on his way to visit his rich but eccentric father at his Portuguese villa. He has taken in tow, almost accidentally, another student named Meeth, who has objectionable habits but who seems quite bright. They discover that Warrington senior is infatuated with a young German girl supposedly on the run from an abusive husband, a sly landlady with her surprisingly able son, a double amputee, a drunken poet, and a few others.
Not surprisingly the young lady shows up dead, but during the subsequent investigation Warrington senior and a local fisherman disappear under strange circumstances. Fearing that his father committed the murder, Tom concocts a preposterous story of a party prank gone wrong, but the missing man turns up, the woman’s real past is revealed, and Meeth’s guilt is determined, though only after he is fatally assaulted by some of the local men. Not much suspense or mystery in this gone, though it is quite readable.
The Chill and the Kill (1964) is the only one of Fleming’s novels to involve the fantastic. A young girl is struck by an automobile and then begins to have prescient visions of death and clairvoyant knowledge. One of those visions is of a murder, although this never becomes one of those novels where the killer wants to wipe out the mystical witness to cover his tracks. The murder victim is a local woman suspected of having had several affairs despite the intense scrutiny by private detectives employed by her often traveling husband. The chief suspect is a young man with a spotty reputation, recently returned under unexplained circumstances from his assignment in South America, where he became involved with a married woman who subsequently committed suicide.
The murder doesn’t take place until three quarters of the way through the novel and it, as well as the solution, seem almost an afterthought. The bulk of the novel is about the clairvoyant girl and her effect on the community, and vice versa. I actually cared little about the murder because this was a much better story, and apparently so did the author, since the solution involves a complicated and completely implausible bit about the dead woman’s husband coming from South America to seek revenge and killing the wrong person by mistake.
Nothing Is the Number When You Die (1965) is a much more consistently entertaining novel, sequel to When I Grow Rich. Nuri bey is asked to travel to England to find out what happened to a missing college student, but the man who makes the request is murdered within hours. The new widow is the love of Nuri’s life so naturally he has to follow through. In England, he discovers that he is being followed by a mysterious man who threatens his life, but Nuri is resourceful enough to befuddle his opponent on several occasions. He also figures out that the disappearance of a young female drug addict is probably connected to the boy’s absence and traces both of them to the property of an elderly relative who has been hiding them. The boy is obsessed with “curing” the girl, which we are told is a hopeless endeavor, and she eventually dies under mysterious circumstances. There’s much more action in this one than in most of Fleming’s work, and several well drawn characters. One of her best.
Midnight Hag (1966) returns once more to familiar ground. Valentine Cumlock is an airy headed painter whose first wife died under mysterious circumstances, leading to his self imposed exile for thirty years. When his father dies, he returns and continues his undistinguished career as an artist, but almost as an afterthought he marries a local woman, Renata, who disappears only months into the marriage. Her body shows up shortly thereafter, weighted down in a river. Fleming provides a few tidbits to occupy our thoughts. Valentine was adopted, parentage unknown. Renata was born out of wedlock, her father’s identity uncertain. The older Cumlock called in a priest just before he died, although he was not religious. The dead woman is weighed down with Cumlock’s gravestone, which was unusually heavy. There are no indications of the cause of death. Renata had also been suffering from depression because she felt a lack of connection with her husband, although she had become enthused about opening an antique shop.
I was rather disappointed in this one. Cumlock is such a non-entity that he becomes totally unbelievable toward the end when he accepts the inevitability of his being convicted of the crime. When he dies, hounded to death by the townspeople, I didn’t even care although he was obviously innocent. The motive for the real killer – the dead woman’s mother – is inadequate and revealed only very late in the game. And the title seems to bear no relationship whatsoever to the story since there are no hags and nothing happens at midnight.
No Bones About It (1967) deals with the Borgan family, who have been financially embarrassed for a considerable period of time. Then the grandfather of the clan - they all live in the same house - begins coming up with cash on a regular basis, and no one in the family bothers to ask where it is coming from. Most of the early chapters - narrated from multiple viewpoints - indicate that some family members were suspicious right from the outset, but no one pursued the matter very far. There are also several allusions to the police investigation which has not yet occurred. There is also a stranger, a young pregnant woman, who keeps showing up in the village and around their house. The grandfather is then found in a coma, possibly the result of a sudden shock of some time, but no one knows what that might have been. Subsequently we learn that the cash is missing from a bank robbery some months earlier. The robbers were caught but never told where they had hidden the loot. The mystery woman is connected to one of the gang. The family suspects the truth and tries to figure out where the rest of the money is. No one can find the woman until her body is discovered inside a safe, apparently murdered by the grandfather. Although the first half is somewhat slow, the story becomes quite intense once everything is set up.
Kill of Cure (1968) is narrated by Jeremy Fisher, a successful though not brilliant doctor. He is unhappily married to Iris and reasonably pleased with his situation otherwise. One of his patients, Elland Bridges, insists that he come over right away. Fisher finds a woman dead following a botched abortion, apparently Bridges' mistress. Bridges then insists that Fisher has been at the house for almost an hour and that he performed the abortion, obviously trying to implicate the doctor so that the latter will help him avoid the scandal. Furious, Fisher strikes him several times. Somewhat implausibly, he decides to help the man cover up his involvement and they concoct a story that is less likely to cause difficulties, although it remains awkward. The dead woman's father arrives to arrange the funeral but he seems to accept Fisher's version of events. A short time later Fisher has a new patient, a man who cannot speak and appears to be in shock. Due to a combination of circumstances, he brings the young man home for the night.
At about the same time, the grieving father - Pat Tralee, a successful crime novelist - reports that he has received a blackmail threat from someone who will blacken his daughter's reputation if he is not paid off. Tralee decides to investigate his daughter's death in more detail and plans to confront Bridges. Bridges tells Fisher that he too is being blackmailed. Then, at a party, Iris gets drunk and lets slip that she has been having an affair with Bridges, that she was at the house when his mistress died, and probably she was responsible for the plan to blame it all on Fisher. Back home, he gives her an injection of a tranquilizer which unexpectedly kill her, then takes her body to a lonely spot and leaves it to be found. In the morning, he confesses what he has done to Tralee, who claims not to believe him. And then the body disappears and it is possible that Iris is not really dead. And the amnesiac might be a con man because a lot of valuables disappear, but perhaps Iris came back for them. There are quite a lot of revelations in the waning chapters - all is not as it appears.
For some reason Fleming’s more recent novels are harder to find and I have to pass by Hell’s Belle to get to Young Man I Think You’re Dying (1970). I should not have liked this one because it’s the kind of crime novel I rarely enjoy. A young man has fallen under the sway of a friend who is a pimp and professional burglar. When a burglary goes wrong, ending with murder, they split, but the burglar grows increasingly reckless and erratic. He commits a second murder and becomes convinced that a runaway girl – who has taken refuge with the comparatively innocent friend – is going to marry him. Meanwhile the police are closing in. Even the ending should have annoyed me. The lesser criminal flees the country, the girl becomes engaged to a minor character without any groundwork to make us believe in their romance, and the bad penny dies, but off stage, in an “accident” engineered by the girl. Despite all of its flaws, I found this one very readable, one of her best written, and breezed through it in a single sitting.
Next came Be a Good Boy (1971). It's another crime novel. The protagonist, Gideon, has one leg noticeably shorter than the other so he can only find work as legman - no pun intended - for a professional fence. They come to a parting of the ways and our hero receives - or thinks he receives - a thousand pound stake to set himself up in the pizza business. But the packet of money is bogus. Meanwhile he has almost inadvertently saved a child from drowning, become a local hero, and finds himself employed and well liked. Unfortunately, Gideon also stole a valuable gem from his former employer, who eventually comes looking for him. But the unwelcome visitor also discovers the murdered body of a local woman, and life becomes unexpectedly complex for both parties. The identity of the real murderer, who eventually commits suicide out of remorse, is obvious from the outset, and the revelation that he has left his estate to Gideon is rather a deus ex machina. Not a bad novel, but not one of her best efforts.
Fleming’s next three novels – Screams from a Penny Dreadful, Grim Death and the Barrow Boys, and Dirty Butter for Servants – have also eluded me, so I skip to Alas, Poor Father (1973). There’s a murder early on in this one, a rather unpleasant woman who tries to convince Basil, our protagonist, to marry her and creates a scene when he refuses. A short time later that same night the woman is shot to death, but it’s not really a mystery because we learn fairly quickly that it was the reclusive pigeon breeder who befriended Basil’s two sons. He is actually a killer and arms runner for the Irish Republican Army and the woman had discovered part of the truth.
The situation becomes complicated when one of the boys also stumbles upon the secret and is locked up, since the culprit is loathe to kill a young boy despite the urging of his brother and co-conspirator. I figured that Basil was going to effect a rescue and give himself a prestige boost with his kinds, but the climax is only moderately exciting and surprisingly non-violent given the set-up. This one struck me as one of Fleming’s lesser efforts.
There’s another gap of three novels after this – You Won’t Let Me Finish, How to Live Dangerously, and Too Late! Too Late! The Maiden Cried. Then came To Make an Underworld (1976). As is the case with many of her novels, I don’t understand the title’s relevance, although it’s nice to see a quotation from Don Marquis. Anyway, the story involves a retiring businessman who wants to disappear entirely from his family and friends. To this end he has had a remote coastguard hut refurbished to his liking, and there in due course he sneaks away with his dog and his books.
Things go wrong right from the outset. Moments after arriving, he discovers that there is a woman locked in his bathroom. Rather than do anything about it then – and remember he’s only two miles from the nearest village and police station – he goes to bed, resolved to deal with it in the morning. This absurdity is, unfortunately, symptomatic of the entire novel, whose characters behave not just irrationally, which is not implausible, but nonsensically. It turns out the girl, who is mentally ill, was sexually assaulted, and the villagers immediately assume that he is the culprit, although it’s obvious from the outset that it was one of the men working on the refurbishing.
Ignoring the rumors, our hero – using the name Escrick – makes friends with a local man who lives in a hovel and works a small job for the Coast Guard, as well as fishing out of his small boat. Escrick is quite sure the man is lying about his background, which he is, but since Escrick is doing the same, he can hardly complain. There’s an incomprehensible meeting with the local pastor, an unconvincing interview with the police, and more encounters with the victim, who turns out to be a nymphomaniac, which makes her evident distress that first night incomprehensible as well. Escrick also meets a local woman who alternates painting landscapes and acting as a social worker. Added to the mix are three mysterious visitors in the village who claim to be scouting for a business site but who carry explosives with them.
Multiple climaxes nearly coincide. The fisherman is helping smuggle arms to the IRA, and he’s a failed priest. The nymphomaniac is found strangled. A mysterious notice in the personal column requests that Escrick contact his lawyers. And the threesome have figured out the identity of the local IRA agent and are determined to kill him. There are irritating gaps of logic. The social worker knows they’re going to attack the boat, but she doesn’t tell the police, and doesn’t do anything about the fact that Escrick is going to be on the boat as well, even though she is by now in love with him. The mysterious request from the lawyers turns out to be, as expected, news that his wife has left him so that he doesn’t need to conceal his identity after all, and can divorce and marry his new love. The dog saves the day, although the IRA man and the murderer are killed and paralyzed respectively in a subsequent accident. The real rapist confesses but the police neither charge him nor let the news leak, the last in a series of implausibilities. Without doubt the worst novel I’ve read by Fleming.
Every Inch a Lady (1977) opens with a brutal murder. The victim has been stabbed to death in his bedroom while his wife was out with family friends. The young widow - Easter Cragg - refuses to leave the house despite the urging of her father-in-law, Sir Jonas. The friends, John and Jill Ramsgate, are shocked by the news. Revelations follow. The dead man was still in touch with a woman who had been his mistress before he met his wife, and whose name is unknown. Easter admits that she had realized she was not in love with her husband but actually with Sir Jonas. He in turn is determined to track down his son's killer and begins his own investigation without telling the police about the mystery woman. He traces a photograph and determines that her name is Valentine Millage, but she has moved away from the only address of record. But he gets too close and he is stabbed to death in the same fashion as was his son.
Some time later, Easter is approached by Nathaniel Sapperton, who claims to have encountered her by accident although the reader knows that their meeting was planned in advance. Sapperton ingratiates himself with Easter and tries to convince her to pursue the investigation despite her reluctance. Then they are jointly visited by Valentine Millage's husband, Ernest, who has no idea where she has gone. He implies that she was still involved with Easter's husband after they were married. Sapperton attempts to track her down through various theatrical agencies since she has been an actress off and on for all of her life. After he tracks down Valentine, who is living with another man, he tells Easter the truth, that he was a friend of her husband's family and that he decided to solve the crime because the police were getting nowhere. Eventually he does, with the help of the wife of one of the police officers, but the guilty party is obvious almost from the very beginning. This was not one of Fleming's better efforts. It is poorly paced and predictable.
Fleming’s final novel was The Day of the Donkey Derby (1978). It is unfortunately a very bad novel, though interesting. Dr. Lavenham is called mysteriously to the house of a local eccentric who turns out to be a criminal mastermind of sorts, with the assistance of his nephew. At the house, Lavenham finds the body of a young woman who died during an illegal abortion. His host is upset when he won’t sign the death certificate as natural causes and produces a gun, refusing to let him leave, assisted in this by his two Spanish speaking servants.
Complications ensue. Lavenham’s prospective daughter in law, whom he has never met, is lured to the house in a rather unbelievable fashion and at Lavenham’s inexplicable instigation. Neither of the criminals ever seems to realize that even if Lavenham signs the certificate, he could disavow it later. Then the dead woman’s roommate shows up and acts even less rationally, eventually becoming a prisoner herself. The identity of the person who committed the abortion, when finally revealed, rings so false that I was appalled. All of this is poorly resolved, the characters never come to life, and motivations and behaviors appear to have little connection with one another. A sad end to what was at times a very promising career.
I’m still looking for the missing books mentioned above, so there may from time to time be updates to this survey.