‘Midsummer Murder’ by Clifford Witting
Originally published in 1937. Reissued in 2022 by Galileo books. Buy from Hive in the UK here.
This review was originally published as part of a longer blog post that can be found here.
Christianna Brand, whose ‘Green for Danger’ we looked at in yesterday’s advent entry, often enjoyed dropping humorous meta-fictional self-references in her work, and this kind of thing is there too in Clifford Witting’s ‘Midsummer Murder’. First published in 1937, this is the second book in a series featuring Inspector Charlton. Like Brand’s Cockie, Charlton is a country policeman, keen to solve the cases on his doorstep ahead of any involvement by The Yard, and Goodreads suggests there are sixteen books in the series. I do hope that the Galileo publishing house have plans to reissue more of them for I have thoroughly enjoyed ‘Murder In Blue’, ‘Measure for Murder’, ‘Dead on Time’ and ‘Midsummer Murder’ this year (I’m saving the Christmas setting of ‘Catt Out Of The Bag’ for later in this festive season).
‘Midsummer Murder’ takes place in the fictional market town of Paulsfield (a fictional version of Petersfield in Hampshire) and, as the second instalment of the series, makes several passing references to characters that crop up in ‘Murder In Blue’. In fact, published earlier in the same year, ‘Murder In Blue’ itself plays the meta card by alluding to the events that play out in the town square in this second book, so there is a dizzying amount of self-referential playfulness at work here that feels remarkably (Post) Modern. Like Brand and many other detective fiction writers, Witting is keen to play the game by puncturing the facade of the fourth wall, having his police surgeon character profess, early in the book, that “it is only your fictional medical man who can announce with certainty, after a swift glance at the wound, that the deed was done with a Mannlicher 7.63 mm. or a Webley .455 self-loader”. There are some further pronouncements later in the story about the differences between ‘revolver’, ‘automatic’ and ‘self-loading’ weapons that similarly poke fun at the devilment of detail used and abused by novelists, all of which position Witting quite clearly as a writer both fully conscious of the essential ingredients of the genre he is working within and at the same time keen to, if not exactly subvert those expectations, at least make us aware that he is not taking himself too seriously. And is it a spoiler to point out that the book concludes by admitting that “We know that the Detection Club, under the presidency of Mr. E. C. Bentley, do not like mad murderers, but there it is.”? Perhaps, but perhaps not, because certainly the entire book really does lead us towards that conclusion from the off and, anyway, it is too sweet a piece of light hearted self-awareness to pass up.
Certainly all of the Inspector Charlton series books that I have read have been spirited and light hearted but ‘Midsummer Murder’ perhaps most of all. There is no evidence to suggest that the book is in any way an inspiration for Caroline Graham’s Inspector Barnaby books or the ‘Midsomer Murders’ television series, but it has to be admitted that a more accurate title WOULD be ‘Midsummer Murders’ because the killings do keep coming in the best spirit of such things. It is another sign that here we have a writer both celebrating the genre they are working inside whilst simultaneously acknowledging a punctuation point in the history of its development. One can’t help wonder too if Witting was writing with an eye on contemporaneous political and social changes in England and beyond, for the book both celebrates existing country ways of life whilst anticipating their decline and disappearance. With a few strokes he paints a picture as delightful as Flora Twort’s painting of Petersfield Market Square that adorns the cover of this edition: “Those who live in the never-ceasing bustle of London will hardly credit the hush that falls on a country town between the hours of one and two in the afternoon. The shops close and the whole population sits down to dinner. Some of them call it lunch, some of them even call it luncheon, but as the same butcher serves them all, that is mere pedantry.”
That aforementioned thread of mental health issues and insecurities that permeates the book also suggests a fracturing world; a world where previous certainties are dissolving to be replaced with uncertainty and the threat of death from above. It may be a stretch to suggest that Witting is anticipating bombs falling from Heinkels, but in the light of the Spanish Civil War and Guernica’s bombing early in the same year of his book’s publication, it is perhaps not so fanciful as all that. In the face of the gathering storm (literally, as a thunder storm provides the backdrop for the book’s denouement) however, Witting remains ultimately upbeat and fires his writing with a kind of grim humour that is similar to that of Christianna Brand. It is certainly fitting that both writers should be benefitting from a degree of rediscovery in our own challenging times.
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