A close resemblance between two characters is a plot device that Agatha Christie used more than once—usually as part of the surprise outcome of one of her seemingly impenetrable mysteries. But in Funeral March of a Marionette, Winifred Duke—rapidly becoming one of my favorite thoroughly obscure authors, though it's always quite a challenge tracking down her books—twists things around (or turns the screw, as Henry James might have put it) and makes such a resemblance the starting point of her tale. Where she takes things from there is both completely daft and enormously entertaining.
|The sad and decrepit copy of Funeral March I read |
(and was lucky to get hold of, courtesy of Brigham Young University)
I've discussed both of my previous experiences in reading Winifred Duke's novels here—The Dancing of the Fox, a sort of historical crime drama, and Dirge for a Dead Witch, an eery historical tale about a witchhunt and its repercussions. Funeral March is the first book I've read of hers that seems to have been set more or less in the present, though perhaps that is relative since it was published in 1945 but contains nary a mention of World War II, and perhaps it's the contemporary setting, taking away the need for her to get all of her historical details exactly correct, that makes Duke feel a bit friskier, freeing her up to be funnier and more irreverent. Because, much to my surprise after my previous Duke experiences, Funeral March is ultimately as much a comedy of errors as a whodunit. Its premise—two cousins who resemble one another so much that they were frequently mistaken for one another as children, and who moreover have both been in Australia and New Guinea for many years—is surely intended to be humorous in itself, but she complicates the situation to the point of farce.
The cousins—Archie Garnett, who has made his fortune farming in Australia, and Gilbert Garnett, who is now the Bishop of Wurrumpoopa, New Guinea—switch places (as one so frequently does) on the boat back to England, purportedly because Gilbert feels that he could be in danger from an unnamed source. And indeed, the cousins have barely arrived in their home town before Gilbert, disguised as Archie, gets himself killed. The trouble is, it's unclear which of them was the intended victim—did the killer realize the victim was Gilbert in disguise, or was the intention in fact to kill Archie? As a result of which, the survivor must (according to the unique logic of the tale) remain in character until the killer is identified, sharing his identity only with his former sweetheart, Peggy, sister-in-law of the local vicar, with whom he has only recently been reunited after years of estrangement due to the vicious lies of Archie's stepmother, Mrs. Garnett.
Among the unexpected complications of the impersonation, however, is the discovery that the victim happens to have been a best-selling author of potboilers, by the incomparable name of Aubrey Pouncebox (not to be confused with Horace Purplepatches, a fellow author of bestsellers), whose publishers are growing ever more impatient for his next book. Duke has considerable fun with the publishing industry in this novel—Pouncebox's publishers are known as Garbage and Gush, Ltd., not to be confused with their arch rivals, Sewage and Slush, or even with Graball and Graball, who have occasionally lured away G&G's clients.
Archie pleads a nervous breakdown in order to explain the delay in producing a manuscript, and then hires Stephen Teal, a foppish, alcoholic, but apparently breathtakingly handsome ghost writer ("Groups of giggling school-girls followed him, worshipping him with their clear eyes. Elderly women, who should have had more sense, turned to stare at him. Middle-aged ones gazed rapturously.") to attempt to put together a novel worthy of Aubrey Pouncebox, but has some difficulty in communicating exactly what he needs without giving away his own secret:
"Aubrey Pouncebox mayn't like you poaching on his preserves, Bishop."
The Bishop, too much occupied with endeavouring to reconcile his recent recollections of his cousin Gilbert, the celibate, the bestseller, with "a married man who's had some," incautiously blurted out his private thoughts. Unconsciously he thereby confirmed Mr. Teal's own suspicions.
"He won't mind. He's dead."
"Dead!" exclaimed Mr. Teal excitedly.
Too late, the Bishop realized his error.
"I—I heard in town the other day that he was dead," he stammered. He gazed wildly about him. "At least— No, it wasn't Aubrey Pouncebox. It was—er—er—Horace Purplepatches."
"Horace Purplepatches dead!" screamed Mr. Teal, aghast.
"I—I understood so. Is it a great loss to literature? Of course, since my—my breakdown I confuse things, and my memory isn't what it was, but I certainly seem to have heard somebody mention that Horace Purplepatches had died recently."
"It must have been very recently." Mr. Teal looked so vindictive as to appear almost plain. "Because I was dining with him on Thursday—the night before you came to see me."
"My mistake," moaned the Bishop.
And really, that's just the beginning of the mounting complications and the ever more intricate deceptions required to keep up the impersonation. There are, for instance, a surprising number of sudden reappearances from abandoned, secret spouses, and each new character who appears seems to determine that they will be the one to solve the mystery, adding layer upon layer of new deceptions to the original one. And then there's the matter of the bishop's missing ring...
But the efforts of all the characters to work out who committed the murder are quite entertainingly interwoven with the web of lies. I sometimes get a bit bored with the speculations and possible sequences of events postulated in mystery novels. It's usually my least favorite part of the story. But one big advantage of an utterly daft plot is that it's impossible to know where it's going, and that's a large part of what made this novel such a rollicking good time.
I have to admit, however, that fans of strictly traditional, methodical whodunits (or of mysteries that retain even the remotest trace of plausibility) might find Funeral March rather too eccentric. A proper detective—in this case a nondescript local called Inspector James—only finally appears on page 129 of this 192-page novel, and even then he soon vanishes again like a skittish rabbit. I also have to admit that the ending is a disappointment (no clever puzzle here) and is, sadly, also fraught with brief but virulent racism—a weak point in such an otherwise entertaining tale.
But despite that, Funeral March has only made me more determined than before to track down more of Duke's virtually nonexistent mysteries. There were a fair number of them, at least some of which were apparently quite popular and successful in their time, and the versatility she has displayed in the three books I've read makes me wonder what else she may have up her sleeve. So, next up is one of the bestsellers, Death and Her Sweetheart, first published in 1938. I've just paid a bit too much for a tiny, cheap paperback copy of Sweetheart, complete with microscopic print and tissue-thin paper. But it was apparently one of the most successful of her books, and this was the one and only copy listed on Abe Books, and verily how could I resist?
So, more on Winifred Duke still to come…
So, more on Winifred Duke still to come…