Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Charles Ashton: Dance for a Dead Uncle, 1948



Charles Ashton, is not a well known author, indeed.
Even on Gadetection, the best known specialist site in the world, the biographical information about him are void. Of Classic Crime Fiction instead it found only that "Charles Ashton, born 1884, had one main series character, Jack Atherley. Other than this we know little else". Nothing else. And of course to his novels, ten in all: Murder in Make-Up, 1934; Tragedy After Sea, 1935; Death Greets to Guest, 1936; Calamity Comes to Flenton, 1936; Stonde Dead, 1939; Death for Two, 1940; Here's Murder Done, 1943; Fate Strikes Twice, 1944; Murder at Peveril Melton, 1946; Dance for a Dead Uncle 1948.
The novel I want to discuss is the last of his production: Dance for a Dead Uncle.

Rare book in the original version in English, rare in the Italian edition of the book (a year later) in the series of "Big Yellow" Pagotto (in Italy the term Yellow, is used to indicate a detective story. It comes from the predominant color on the covers of the first detective novels of the publishing house Mondadori, in Italy).

John Ormesley died.  By natural death.
Some time before his death he had become interested in seances, for the interest of his friend, Major Repford. But these his interests had been disapproved by his nephews, especially the two brothers Philip and Harold who took care of the family, and that were the children of a brother of the old man; the other three young nephews (children of a sister) Francis, Desmond and Stanley, however, did not in any way criticized the  spiritualistic interests of the old uncle.
In his will, at least bizarre, the old states that the two greatest nephews in turn should watch his coffin in the dark, lit only from four candles at the four sides of it, in a completely locked room: and motivates this with, with the fact that his spirit wants to look at the two incredulous nephews.  Indeed uncle invites others nephews and their wifes to dance to the sound of music at his funeral, because he thinks that his life will be happy afterlife. He also wants that no one dresses in mourning but as if they were going to pay him a visit. The purpose by dead uncle is clear: playing a dirty trick to the two nephews, and having fun behind them ... by dead.
This will read from Hallerton, counsel for the old, in front of everyone, suggests Philip and Harold, that if they refused, they could be excluded from a lot of generous bequests uncle. In fact, even the will of his uncle is a joke made by his uncle to his nephews, because even if they refused they would not be excluded by the legacy. The content of these last will cause criticism from some who refuse to dance and to dress brightly, Clara, Harold's wife, and Philip, the eldest brother. Nevertheless, if Clara retires to pray once arrived at The Grange, the estate of Ormesley, others decide to fulfill the will of the dead, especially the two larger cousins: Before Philip (at 22 o’clock), then his brother (at five minutes past 22) will have to be alone with the dead, in the dark, in the study, while others will have to meet in the library to testify that Philip and Harold are actually entered in turn in the study.

Meanwhile, Stanley and Cicely, Philip's wife, go for a walk in the garden and here are surprised by a maid, while they are kissing (they have an affair), without them noticing, while all the others are inside the house. Major Repford arrives, friend of the old man, who has routed him to the spiritualist practices. Immediately he understands that his visit is not welcome because impute to him the spiritualist passions of his uncle and then what ensued.
At one point they hear drop three lines , which seem to Durblin the old butler, those that old Ormesley used to do with a stick to get his attention. Nobody knows comprehend who has made them and where they come from. Cicely came back but Stanley goes to see what happened to Harold. Seeing neither Harold nor Stanley, sent to look for Francis.

Harold goes to get drunk in a bathroom on the first floor while his brother Philip entered the studio to 22.00. After a few minutes, feel again the three shots coming this time from inside the room followed by a horrible groan, which makes their hair stand at all. The 5 minutes finish and Philip does not come out. Meanwhile Francis arrives saying that he did not find Harold, and, knowing the news, and that others had tried to open the door but in vain, proposes to go around and try to get from the windows: he, Hallerton and Desmond go around and find the doors of the window s, closed. Desmond breaks the glass with an elbow and then penetrate into the room lit by four candles at the corners of the catafalque. Leaning against one of the trestles is sitting Philip, with a crown of flowers on his head and a photograph of the old Ormesley placed on the chest. He is dead: he has been killed by a spear in the back, and the weapon is located on the ground instead of in a panoply on the wall, with blood dripping the blade. On the ground, a handkerchief by John Ormesley.

Philip has been assassinated in a hermetically sealed room.
Meanwhile he arrives staggering Harold: he says he had gone to Clara, and wants to enter the room to avoid being ousted by the legacy: they prevent him and put him aware of the situation.
Call the police and get the Inspector Lessington of the County Police, which is at dire straits: it’s evident all those who are in the house will inherit, and that no one could have something to do with the crime because if Clara was in the room and Harold too drunk to walk, Stanley was in the house upstairs to try and Harold, and Francis to seek the two of them, and the other in the library, who would ever have been able to kill Philip, discovered dead in a locked room, sealed inside and whose window had been closed?

However some bad testimonies are intertwined: Harold says he was with Clara and she instead says that she was alone, then when it becomes known that he would rather go to get drunk in a bathroom, where the service staff found a bottle of empty whiskey; if the testimony of Stanley is intertwined with the testimony of Clara, he does not know how to explain his delay. And besides Francis also it delayed, but in fact they then found on the ground his cigarette case. In short Lessington does not know what to do, and therefore they alert Scotland Yard, which sends the Inspector of C.I.D. Merton.
Merton just arrived begins to question everyone, without exception: even Durblin, the butler, Major Repford and the medium that had participated in the meetings of Ormesley.



He learns all sorts of things especially about Philip, who was not loved: his wife who was unfaithful could not endure his pedantry; his brother had had disagreements; Francis kept in check who was tired of working in the company of his family (but in the meantime he had not gone away); other cousins didn’t tolerate him; and even the butler feared him for something that happened in the past, when it was discovered he had stolen some change of the old Ormesley, but had forgiven from him (while Philip, to which it had been ordered not to interfere, didn’t forgive him). Then in the workplace he was hated for how he had  treated people in subjection to him, including Francis, when the banknotes were gone from his desk drawer, treating them as thieves, except to find them in the cavity behind the tray.

However, nothing seems to move. Merton begins to think of a case, related to a room behind the fireplace which houses of fishing tools. Then Stanley and Buckley, the medium, go away. When you think they have something to do with something, they fall and make themselves available to the inspector. It turns out that on the night of murder, Buckley had gone to the house of Major and then he had gone to The Grange (to find him), where he had arrived and had been seen heading towards the house, only to later go away ; Stanley, questioned by Merton separately, when you think he has to do with death, rather provides another explanation: the second three sticks and lament had been produced from himself, upstairs, in the room of the old uncle, beating on the floor with the victim's shoes that were found by the old Durblin thrown under a chair instead of answers as he had done neatly. Merton finds out that into the room at which had been put the coffin, they  had put a lot of wreaths in a part of the study room in the dark, where there was an armchair: when they entered the room, they had not paid attention to all these flowers.

Merton processes a first hypothesis that the murderer was inside the room when they had entered, concealed under the flowers, and then when they had come to call the police, he managed to slip away through the open window. But this is a first hypothesis invented to mislead the killer.

Hours later, in the presence of all those present, it will formulate a second hypothesis that will retract the first, nailing the wily murderer, disoriented by a theory, first formulated for the specific purpose of deceiving him.
Beautiful novel, you  read it in one breath. It stands alone on hallucinatory atmosphere, which presupposes supernatural intervention, because only it could explain the death of a person struck by a spear in the back, inside a sealed room, where there was only a coffin, with stone dead on the inside. How not to think about the revenge of a dead man, arrived from the afterlife? Given that the first thing you would have to look at is that there really the dead uncle was in the coffin, and no one looks at there trusting that there is really the dead uncle (and he is there!), end given that anyone feeling that Philip does not respond, feels the need that all should feel, that is, breaking the door, question that arises the good Merton (and the reader, also), even here the sequence of events, even if the murderer is one, is explained and explainable only by recognizing that there is a combination of two actions but each in itself: the murder and the production of the first false three noises; the production of the latter three false hits and lament. Stanley and the murderer are not accomplices, but have acted both to the detriment of Philip: the first , wanting to do it scare, because he can not stand him; the second to legitimize a supernatural event, which will then also be charged for the murder to. The beauty is that the murderer, when he hears the noises caused by another person, it scares in turn.

So here too there is a sham.
The solution is highly spectacular: it reminded me, in a certain way, to Whistle Up The Devil Derek Smith, for the role of the window and the role of one of those present, who should oversee something: there is the window in the corridor between the observation point and the closed room from inside, but here it is used to access directly to the room; there is someone who would have to monitor the situation though apparently would not have to go straight into the assassination; Here is someone who had to watch that Philip would have remained in the room, and instead is entered directly into the assassination dynamic.
As it has developed the murder, since there are no other outlets besides door and window, if the first was watched by more people and it was closed, there is no doubt that the murderess has entered and exited from the window: it is obvious! But how did he do? The trick is extraordinary.
At first Merton checks that the handle can not have been turned by one, putting it straight in vertical and then slamming the window from the outside, causing a jolt provoking its horizontal relapse; then he realizes the trick, putting it in connection with the room of fishing rods, whose window looked out on the garden next to the studio window. It’s clear that it was prepared before the window (there is no detachable panel with putty, or sliding, nor even secret springs, as in the work of Carr) and only one could do it, man or woman.

Moreover, the success of this House, is functional also the time: at 22 pm there is darkness and the darkness has played for the killer, who has risked big although helped by low light, taking advantage that those who were present to the breaking glass did not see what we would see with more light (the door whose glass had been broken was actually healthy before the break).
I would say that this novel is undeservedly unknown and this is also in the main lists; and dating back to 1948, a period when the great tradition of the '30s was already forgotten, and was ushering the new harvest of crime fiction, dominated not only by brainy puzzles but also by psychological ones. And here psychology there is so much, and a lot of deduction! Only Bob Adey reports the existence of this novel in his Locked Room and Other Impossible Crimes, without providing any biographical news.

It is, however, a novel of the late '40s that we might close with a flourish a series, we'd like to read other titles or have information about. It’s as if it was meant as a closure of an era with an super-enigma of thirties, despite in a period of new editorials pushing, he could still see far-reaching titles: how could we forget that just the novel by Derek Smith ( the best known, which then was the first to be published but not the first to be written) is of 1953, and the great successes by Carr are of those years: He who Whispers of 1946, The Sleeping Sphynx of 1947, Below Suspicion of 1948. And A Graveyard to Let, with H.M., is of 1949 and is one of the best novels with Merrivale. And that The Woman in the Wardrobe by Shaffer brothers is of 1951? While What A Body! By Alan Green is of 1949?
The thing that seems to me absolutely shameful, and I notice it, is like this author should have earned a very different reputation and instead also in England is practically a stranger. And so I have to recognize once again how the foresight of those who stood up the series Pagotto was really big (even more when I see that the novel is of 1948, and the Italian publishing is one year later, a sign that whoever was behind the series he had the privilege of reading good authors or had the great foreign consultants)!
Especially since the same mechanism of the solution is a brilliant idea at the same time is disarmingly simple. Which ultimately it makes me say that just the simplest solutions of insoluble puzzles, make stay more in awe .

Great.

Pietro De Palma

6 comments:

  1. Thanks for highlighting this forgotten author.

    Here's a lesson in how to find about an obscure writer's life. Look up his books online. Read all the info in the booksellers' catalog descriptions. With luck some enterprising seller will include some biographical info on the writer. Like this one:

    ASHTON, Charles (Charles Henry), 1884-1968 STONE DEAD. London : Mellifont Press, [1944]. [Second edition]. A country-inn mystery from photographer, war-hero, silent movie star and ultimately crime-writer Charles Ashton. Originally published by Robert Hale in 1939. Crown 8vo (18cm). 96pp.

    AHA! He was an movie actor. Off to imdb.com. Enter Charles Ashton and look for the one with silent movie credits. Lo and behold! a full biography on Charles Ashton:

    "British actor Charles Ashton became an actor not long after receiving a medical discharge from the army due to injuries he received at the Battle of Ypres in World War I. He made his film debut in Pillars of Society (1920). He appeared in a string of films for such well-known directors as Maurice Elvey and Victor Saville. Ashton was one of the many silent-era actors whose career ended with the advent of sound, and he made his last film in 1929. However, he did begin another career as a successful novelist in the 1930s and 1940s, mostly of crime thrillers."

    :^D

    I may be on the lookout for his books, but his work seems to be very scarce. Since he wasn't published in the US my guess is most of his books are lost forever due to the World War two bombing of the publishing house that originally released his books.

    I'd avoid using the GAD wiki for anything, Pietro. It's hardly all inclusive, especially on little known mystery writers. There are few scholars volunteering over there. They'd rather dish dirt about books they don't like than celebrate the genre and foster curiosity about the obscure writers.

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  2. Thanks John for your intervention. It solves a mystery. I had told some friends, including Martin Edwards, I thought Charles Ashton was a pseudonym and you me confirm it. I am part of gadetection because Jon invited me a year ago. But only a few days, having found the password I was able to change it and to return to gadetection. However I did not understand how to insert my judgments. Therefore I invite you to create the Ashton page because there is not currently. You could maybe refer to this article for its novel.
    I am glad that you have showed up. I understand the allusion to the fact that (also) he was an actor.

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    1. OK, I'll add a page for Charles Ashton at the GAD Wiki. It's not a pseudonym, though. That's apparently his real name: Charles Henry Ashton. I'll have to wait until I get home tonight. It's a bit involved using that website and I want to verify all the publication dates and publishers of his books in my copy of Hubin. I'll be sure to credit you if I quote from your blog. I'll also have to credit the person who actually wrote the blurb on Ashton that I found at imdb.com.

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  3. Great detective work, John! As I've told Pietro, I now own Bob Adey's copy of this book (inscribed by Ashton) but have yet to read it. Pietro's enthusiasm coupled with the info you've found make me want to push it up the list....

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    1. Thanks, Martin. I was surprised how easy it all was. Sometimes it's really all luck. ;^)

      Wish there were more copies of his books out there. Only two English language editions. [...sigh...] I spent way too much money in March and April on books and I can't justify paying $35 for a scarce paperback especially when the seller wants $17 to ship a lightweight book to the US.

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  4. I thought Charles Ashton was a pseudonym because there isn't some info before you found it. But still I can not figure out how on "Classic Crime Fiction" which is a great website where you will find the lists of novels by many authors also unknown to most people, the informations you have given, there were not . Evidently you are a magician. Or you have more catalogs than those they use. :-)

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