Written by Christopher Huang — The year is 1924. In the Britannia Club, a swanky London gentlemen’s club exclusively for those who served in World War I, a friendly wager has been placed. The bet is between Captain Mortimer Wolfe and Albert Benson, a conscientious objector who volunteered as a stretcher bearer during the War and as such doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the members. Wolfe is certain that he can break into the club’s vault and remove the contents of Benson’s lockbox, and Benson reluctantly agrees. The judge of this contest is Eric Peterkin, a half-Chinese lieutenant who fought in Flanders and now makes a living wading through the slush pile of submissions to a publisher of popular detective novels.
Peterkin and Benson head down to the vault, inspect the contents and then lock the door. Sometime over the course of the night, while the club is closed and all locked up, Wolfe enters the vault and extracts a single item from Benson’s lock box. The next day, Benson’s body is found in the vault with several important items missing from the box – items that, Benson swore to Peterkin, would reveal a truth waiting to be exposed. The murder weapon is an ornate letter opener belonging to the Britannia’s president, Edward Aldershott. The blood from the wound has sprayed a red arc across the club’s Latin motto: Dolce et decorum est pro patria mori – it is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.
Readers of Christopher Huang’s debut are left with no doubt that the deaths of millions in the battlefields of World War I were neither sweet nor honourable. A Gentleman’s Murder is filled with the scars of war, both mental scars of PTSD and morphine addiction, as well as the physical scars from mustard gas, trench foot and various other injuries. Peterkin’s struggles with recurring visions of no man’s land are gripping, although sometimes spoiled by their heavy-handedness. There are moments when you can forget that this was written nearly a hundred years after the armistice was signed, but there are other times when the perspective sounds straight out of the 21st century. Peterkin says some things about race, about the 1920s and about London that do not feel like they could come from someone living in that time. The fact that Peterkin is a lieutenant, despite his Chinese appearance and his constant grappling with racism, and the fact that he and Benson, a conscientious objector, are allowed into an upper-class gentleman’s club for combat veterans, are all issues that are never really cleared up satisfactorily.
Despite A Gentleman’s Murder featuring a locked-room mystery, a series of larger than life characters, a face-off in an opium den and a murder in a refined, upper-class setting, there’s much more to it than the Golden Age influences it wears proudly on its sleeve. It delves into the issue of race in postwar London, and the ways in which returned soldiers struggled to reintegrate into 1920s British society. It speaks of PTSD, corruption, addiction and all manner of other vices. The plot is complex but the ending itself is pure Golden Age, with a spot of the psychological thrown in. It’s as if Sherlock Holmes was revived by Dorothy Sayers, and the result was a complex, thought-provoking novel with much more to it than first meets the eye. Read the novel and watch for the TV series based on it as well, which is currently being made.
A Gentleman’s Murder is currently available as a paperback with an ebook version on the way. Read our interview with the author here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars