Death of His Uncle, by C.H.B. Kitchin (1939)

9794058efda64200cd4824583e86f71fI’ve recently moved into a larger place with more space for bookshelves; concomitantly, I’ve been enjoying the process of unpacking a few hundred boxes of books, some of which haven’t seen the light of day for more than 20 years. In the next little while, you can expect me to be making happy discoveries of books that I’m finding pleasant to re-read, as they come serendipitously to hand.

This volume attracted me because I opened it up and immediately hit upon a quote that was so astonishingly well linked to some issues about which I’ve been pondering that, well, I had to re-read it immediately. (I’ll share it with you near the end of this piece.) Then when I found out a little more about the author and realized what a fascinating book this is, I knew I had another winner to share.

WARNING: This essay concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What is this book about?

imagesBritish stockbroker Malcolm Warren has solved two mysteries already as an amateur detective, and when an Oxford acquaintance, Dick Findlay, asks him to take a hand in investigating the disappearance of Findlay’s uncle, a middle-aged suburban householder, Warren believes he knows what to do.

Warren, with Findlay in tow, traces the last few days of Dick’s uncle Hamilton, who apparently took a vacation in Falmouth, embarked on an unusual
8037927program of activities, and finished up by removing all his clothes (and wig) upon a deserted beach and committing suicide. After a thorough investigation of the uncle’s last days, an increased knowledge of the vanished gentleman’s heirs and relatives, and everyone’s various romantic interests, Warren writes a long letter to his friend, Detective-Inspector Parris of Scotland Yard, and answers all the loose ends and outstanding questions.

I’ve deliberately avoided giving very much detail because quite a bit of the pleasure of this charming book is following Warren’s investigation of the details of the case; the less I say, the better.

Why is this book worth your time?

There are a number of reasons why this enjoyable book is worth your time; the idea that it’s charming is a major part of it, of course. Although its publication date of 1939 is somewhat later than most of this category, I think this is a “don’s delight”; a Golden Age mystery written by a highly literate person for highly literate people.

For instance, in the opening pages of the book, Malcolm Warren (the first-person narrator) reveals that he has an interesting talent; he can improvise on the piano after the fashion of various classical composers. (“This,” I would say after considerable pressure, “is a Beethoven Air with Variations. This is a César Franck Choral Prelude. This is a Brahms Intermezzo,” etc.) Of course the less-than-donnish reader like myself is flattered to think that such an intelligent person could assume I could tell the difference between a Brahms Intermezzo and Three Blind Mice — although since the music isn’t actually audible, readers like myself tend to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. Similarly the narrator plays bridge, is a connoisseur of sherry, hobnobs with titled people, and is invited to country-house weekends.

1988The story, aside from being written in elegant language, is quite smart. Kitchin takes the time to establish his narrator as a fallible human with likes and dislikes, and the result is that this is someone by whose opinions and experiences you will be amused even when the book takes the occasional sag. Sometimes he even puts those sags in — Warren takes some personal time to have dinner with his sister, to no narrative purpose whatever save that it makes him seem more realistic. Unlike many other amateur detectives, Warren has a job at which he works, and co-workers with whom he interacts. Everything works together to give you a well-rounded portrait of the narrator. And because you see the narrator as human, you understand how and why he makes his occasional errors; they slow down the detection, but it’s more realistic and much more enjoyable. The book meanders every once in a while and is better for it.

15807059142Without spoiling too much for you, the plot is simple and clear. Warren investigates the last days of the vanished uncle, finds out what his plans were (including some which he was keeping from his friends and relations), figures out exactly where he ended up, and brings the guilt home to the appropriate person. Of course there are surprises along the way. One concerns an object which the reader has lost track of through never thinking about it — sorry if this is enigmatic, but I’d prefer to maintain your surprise. Think of this as the equivalent of the object which Peter Wimsey realizes is missing from the opening scenes of Five Red Herrings; except in this case the detective is equally as forgetful as the reader. I didn’t succeed in beating Warren to the solution, and I have to confess I wasn’t trying very hard. I was enjoying the plot and the writing so much that I simply relaxed and let it all happen, and that’s a very pleasant experience.

I promised you a quotation from the book that I found extraordinarily relevant to my recent interest in how societal matters and mores are revealed within the pages of Golden Age detective fiction: it’s rather long, but bear with me, please.

“I have always maintained that when an ordinary member of the public is confronted with a crime or a mystery, he bases his conduct on the detective stories he has read. I have read a good many detective stories and find them a sedative for the nerves. Oddly enough, what I like in them isn’t so much the puzzle of the plot, still less sensational hairbreadth escapes, but precisely the element which you would least expect to find in such stories — the humdrum background, tea at the Vicarage, a morning in an office, a trip to Brighton pier — that microscopic study of ordinary life which is the foil to the extraordinary event which interrupts it. A good detective story, I have found, is often a clearer mirror of ordinary life than many a novel written specifically to portray it. Indeed, I think a test of its goodness is the pleasure you can derive from it even though you know who the murderer is. A historian of the future will probably turn, not to blue books or statistics, but to detective stories if he wishes to study the manners of our age. Middle-class manners perhaps. But I am old-fashioned enough to enjoy the individualism of the middle class.”

It’s always pleasant when a character in a detective story starts to speculate about the workings of detective stories! I agree completely with Kitchin; I derive a great deal of pleasure from detective stories because of their microscopic study of ordinary life. In this volume, for instance, we learn the precise number of courses of dinner (two) during which one converses with the diner at one’s right hand before turning politely to the diner upon your left. And in a similar degree of granularity, here’s a fine point of social class which I was happy to learn. The narrator is staying in a wealthy country house in a bedroom “nearly the size of his flat”. He finds “[a] notice in a gold filigree frame [which] told me that dinner was at half-past eight — half an hour later than it had been in the Wimbledon house — half an hour higher on the social scale.” That’s the stuff I love to learn from Golden Age novels and there is plenty of it here.

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C.H.B. Kitchin

The other thing that urged my immediate re-examination of the entirety of Clifford Kitchin’s work is when I did a little investigation of this author to bring to you here. To my surprise, I learned that he was rather like his narrator (both were known for improvising at the piano), with one large difference — Kitchin was what we would today term gay, and lived for many years with a male domestic partner. He was a wealthy barrister who was “out” in the most upper-class of gay men’s society of the time; high-ranking politicians, artists and poets, the wealthy, and some well-known novelists. That was a point of similarity that immediately fascinated me and explained some of the attitude that I found underlying the narrator’s dispassionate observations. Although it’s dangerous and frequently unsupportable to speculate about an author based merely on his fiction, it seemed to me that there’s a faint air of the “outsider” about the narrator and perhaps the author; Warren observes keenly and wryly, but he doesn’t seem to ever be truly a part of the society in which he participates. I believe this is well known as a hallmark of gay fiction. You’ll find some interesting glosses on Kitchen’s biography in Wikipedia here, and from a gay POV here.

Kitchin’s reputation in detective fiction rests primarily upon his first of four Malcolm Warren mysteries, 1929’s Death of My Aunt. I’ve obtained a copy of that and another Warren mystery, Crime at Christmas, and may well be doing more Kitchin analysis in the near future (Crime at Christmas seems very timely!). I wanted to mention that his other non-mystery novels were very highly regarded and “writerly”, and although I’m not reading much these days that isn’t genre fiction, this volume was so well-written and interesting that it may just tempt me to step outside my comfort zone. Praise indeed! I hope you find the time to get a copy of this excellent volume. None of the four mysteries appear to be available in electronic format and the fourth title, The Cornish Fox, appears to be both scarce and expensive. (Also timely is my family’s need to find me appropriate Christmas gifts! I’ll drop a word in Santa’s ear, perhaps.)