In George Milner’s hybrid mystery Shark among Herrings, Jupiter Insurance Company investigator Ronald Anglesea crashes the desultory country house party of Sidney Manders. Ronald manages to sneak his attractive Girl Friday, Diane, into the group after a few evenings, and together the two learn the circumstances that resulted in the disappearance of Pamela Manders’ valuable rubies. Also staying at the house are two alleged newlyweds, Stephen and Julia Ravensdale – “alleged” as there have been reports of a matching pair of thieves who answer to much the same description – and James Chudleigh, a blustery Scot with a stutter. While James claims to be a copy-writer, he is evasive about exactly what his connection to the host might be.
The communal living begins to wear on the nerves of the guests, and soon the missing jewels are the least of the group’s concerns. Ronald uncovers several small-scale but vindictive blackmail schemes from an unknown source, and Sidney’s son Trevor is still away from the house, although no belongings were taken and Trevor’s disappearance occurred the same night the rubies went missing. While Sidney believes his son had left to prove himself in life, Ronald suspects that the young man may have met a more sinister fate. Added to this is an escalating and ugly battle between John Cross-Rivett and Smash Mainwaring, his insufferable nephew. When John’s rifle is sabotaged with smoke cartridges, the angry hunter thrashes the young man, with Pamela offering encouragement. The next shooting party almost proves deadly, however, as a switched cartridge of a different caliber results in Cross-Rivett’s gun exploding in his face.
From there it seems like bloodshed is inevitable. Smash has become obsessed with anchoring a dinghy at a particular spot on the private loch – is Trevor Manders’ body hidden below? – and launching toy boats on the water. The hobby is ill-chosen: while nearly everyone from the house explores the lake’s floor using diving helmets, a hand rises from the water to stab Smash in the back as he leans over the dinghy’s edge. Detective-Inspector McCulloch investigates, sending divers in, but the knife is not under water and no one had a way of concealing a weapon in a bathing suit. A car chase, a late-night hallway stakeout, and a final rendez-vous at the loch help Ronald Anglesea solve the mystery of the rubies and unmask an unbalanced killer.
Shark among Herrings is Milner’s second (and final) Anglesea novel; the first was 1953’s Stately Homicide. It’s also the first book by this author I have read, choosing it for the website Past Offences’ Crimes of the Century, a wonderful reader challenge that suggests a new publishing year to reviewers each month. 1954’s Herrings is a highly entertaining read, although its mix of genre styles may prove an obstacle for classic mystery purists. While one half of the book is firmly rooted in Golden Age detective premise and puzzle play, one quarter also delivers some elements usually associated with American hard-boiled fiction: the wise-cracking and solitary detective, the beautiful assistant, described here as “a platinum blonde whose swathes of heavy hair fall straight round her head and droop (by careful arrangement) over one blue eye,” the outbreaks of action and danger. There’s also a thread of criminal psychology and “mania” woven into the plotline, and Milner provides some effectively vivid but far-from-cosy descriptions of violence:
Smash lay dead enough, drooped over the bows, the blood which stained the back of his shapeless tweed jacket already beginning to look a dirty brown in the still bright sunlight. Blood dripped, too, from his mouth, and splashed in sticky drops into the cold, crystal water; each drop spread into red, stringy lines in the sunlit water, then was dissipated like a melting jellyfish.
In Shark among Herrings, the shooting is sabotaged, the waters are deadly, and familiarity moves past contempt to incite bloody murder. Which is one more reason why I will think twice if I’m ever invited to an extended country house party.