Saturday, March 10, 2012

Basement Find: The Portcullis Room
Valentine Williams was a prolific author of Country House mysteries in the twenties and thirties. I didn't know this when my father-in-law pulled a box of old books out of his basement. I find old books irresistible and grabbed a few that looked interesting. The Portcullis Room is one of two books Williams wrote in 1934. I was attracted by the embossed "Secret Service Series" designation that cuts diagonally across the cover.
 There's something about the also-rans and the second rates that has always interested me. Valentine Williams, at least on the evidence of this book, was no match for Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers. The book lacks any compelling central protagonist. There isn't an identifiable detective at the center of the mystery. There isn't any Secret Service agent. It's interesting that Williams wrote other books featuring a detective named Mr. Treadgold, a Saville Row tailor (and quite the exception in a genre that featured upper class detectives or policemen.)
The murder mystery in this book is investigated by two men who kinda-sorta solve the case. And the setting, a grim castle on a Scottish Isle, is almost too stereotypical to be believed. So, quite frankly, is the menace from a Swedish crime lord. Williams did not exactly presage Henning Mankell.
 So why did I read The Portcullis Room to completion? An exercise in form like this book can be very instructive to a writer. The variation on the Country House murder model, a group of people trapped in one building with a murderer in their midst, is not particularly inventive here. As I mentioned above, although the setting has the potential to be threatening the characters are leaden stereotypes of dour Scots, flighty ingenues and clumsy gangsters. Both "investigators" are described by the amount of cigarettes they smoke. Over all, The Portcullis Room is a dud. It's failures, however, tell me about what not to do.
And the cover is still cool.

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