by Simon Tolkien
Stephen Cade is on trial for the murder of his father, the famed Oxford historian and medieval manuscript expert. It’s a fairly straightforward case; Stephen’s fingerprints were on the murder weapon, he was the last person to see his father alive and they had just had a huge fight after being estranged for years. Stephen’s father even had an appointment the following day to remove Stephen from his will. The evidence all points at him – but Stephen didn’t do it. The defense struggles to build a case for his innocence, but as the details of the historian’s dark past come to light it becomes clear that Stephen is not the only one who would benefit if John Cade was dead.
I’m not much of a mystery fan, so I was really surprised when Librarything’s Early Reviewers program selected this book for me. It’s a very classic sort of whodunit story, populated with all sorts of unsavory characters capable of the crime. This was actually a bit of the problem; I didn’t like any of the characters. I didn’t really care if Stephen was proven innocent or not because he was arrogant to the extreme. If his father’s murder wasn’t solved, I didn’t care; the man was cruel and did unspeakable things in World War II. His friend Ritter was a wife-beater; Ritter’s wife was adulterous. Stephen’s brother Silas was a perverted creep who peeped at women through a spyglass and photographed them. Eeew.
The book was also predictable. I figured out who the murderer was before I was halfway through the book. The characters in the book, however, did not figure this out until the deus ex machina moment in the final chapters, so they wasted all this time chasing up dead ends.
I will give Tolkien credit for creating a very atmospheric novel. It’s dark and brooding. You also really get a sense of how a court case can go sour through its administration, complete with sloppy police work, biased judges, and the race against the clock to fight off the death sentence. (As the author explains at the beginning, in 1950s England there was no lengthy appeals process like there is in the United States. The execution followed the death sentence very rapidly, within days or a few weeks.)
There’s a bit of a plot about the quest for a holy relic. John Cade devoted his life to finding it, and an assistant of his continues the search after his death. The fact that he was looking for this relic ties into the main murder plot, providing motives for several of the characters, but the assistant’s continued search after the murder feels tacked on, and it leads to a very unsatisfactory conclusion. The entire story could have been told without it.
2.5 out of 5 stars