It’s the moment that you’ve both all been waiting for: the chance to see me (and hear Flex and Herds, fellow sleuths and hosts of the Aussie podcast Death of the Reader) prove our mettle as armchair sleuths – or fall on our faces before the annoying superiority of blogger, podcaster and two-time book editor JJ McJJ of The Invisible Event and In GAD We Trust– in this final installment centering around pulp writer Theodore Roscoe’s kuhh – raaaaazzzyy Haitian Hoodunit, Murder on the Way. (Part I is here, and Part II is here.)
Our story so far:
#&% #$^ ARE #&#$ & $&& YOU #&*# $^@ (*& KIDDING ##*@^ ME???
Seriously, though, the sordid tale of a stalwart Greenwich Village artist and his peppy girlfriend travelling to Haiti for the reading of her late uncle’s will, only to find themselves trapped in a crumbling plantation house with a horde of murderous heirs while outside a hurricane roars and a revolution draws closer that might be led by a zombie – all of this is just window dressing for the deliciously over-the-top prose, sadly peppered with of-its-time racist slurs, of which Roscoe seems to be master.
Oh, sure, there have been a couple of impossible crimes: one of the heirs, the tongueless Dominican Ti Pedro, was found locked in a cupboard, his body lying on a burning rug, a bullet hole appearing through the top of his head! And Ambrose, the albino ex-con, is found next door in the billiard room with the candlestick eating Professor Plu- . . . no, no, I couldn’t resist. Ambrose has been stabbed through with a sharpened billiard cue with a billiard ball inserted in his mouth (the #3 ball, indicating that he is the third victim).
After which, the other heirs paired up to kill each other: the horribly offensive Mammy Unpleasant housekeeper and her I-can’t-describe-what-he-is son Toadstool battled it out with guns on the staircase and slaughtered each other, while the Army Deserter known as the Ensign and the Nazi bodyguard chased each other in the rain, only to have a mysterious figure shoot and kill the Ensign and send the Nazi scrambling out of the compound. When last we left our hero, Edwin Cartershall, he had discovered that girlfriend Pete was missing and had run after the unknown assassin – straight into the mysterious labyrinth of secret passages that seem to thread throughout the mansion.
* * * * *
After racing through what seems like miles and miles of secret passage, which seem to merge into old mine tunnels, Cart finds Pete – far too easily for my taste, but Roscoe is keeping his plot moving!!! Nothing they say to each other clears up this mystery, and so Cart does what he’s been doing ever since the – hold for the chapter title – “Process of Elimination” – has mowed down the book’s suspect list: he accuses the only character left alive besides them, the dwarf/attorney Tousellines.
Cart and Pete start looking through the dead end mine passage where somebody appears to have been hiding out for means of exit or for their suspect. (My favorite moment is when Cart looks for Tousellines under a loaf of raisin bread.) This theory is fortunately dashed right away when our couple emerges to find the lawyer with Lieutenant Narcisse, who can establish Tousellines with a perfect alibi. And the only other option, Nazi Manfred von Murda, is also crossed off the list when his body is discovered drowned in the swimming pool.
I’d like to explain to Lieutenant Narcisse at this point that there is nobody left to consider except “dead” Uncle Eli, who I figure has been hanging around the mines when he’s not killing everyone in sight. And, judging by Pete’s reaction to the presence of raisin bread in the mineshaft, I would guess that this is one of Uncle Eli’s favorite snacks, thus proving my theory.
But Narcisse has worse problems to share: the army of zombie-led revolutionaries is proceeding toward the Château. And, wonder of wonders!, That zombie appears to be the reanimated corpse of no other than Uncle Eli Proudfoot!
What follows in the next three out of four chapters is beyond belief – a horror spectacular. The grave is dug up, and Uncle Eli’s corpse . . . . IS THERE!!!! But it doesn’t remain a corpse for long: it rises creepily before the thousands of Haitian rebels before it and calls for a great war, one that includes the deaths of every remaining character on the book’s cast list. At this point Cart is grabbed, thrown into the open grave, and (cue Chapter Eleven title:) Buried Alive!!! This leads to the most uncomfortable moments for this claustrophobic reader, but all is made clear in supremely ludicrous fashion. Cart is saved in surpremely outrageous fashion. Best of all – in appropriately outrageous fashion – Pete herself solves the case and saves the island of Haiti from disaster.
We were correct! Uncle Eli had not died at all. His super grand plot involved hidden passages and trap doors everywhere, so let’s not argue here about “fair play.” (Sorry, Scott!) His motive was more extreme than one could imagine, maybe the most extreme of any murderer’s (the words “Hitler complex” are mentioned in passing.) The impossible crimes are explained by Pete, and I have to hand it to Flex and Hurds as to their amazing accuracy there! No two ways about it, JJ, they should get the points! The very best thing about the ending is the reincorporation of that Portrait of Pete that has been hanging around throughout the novel. Having provided Cart’s backstory and then gotten him into terrible trouble when he tried to prove to Narcisse he was a real artist, that painting pays back in full . . .
By all means, now’s the point where you should listen to the final episode of Death of the Reader dealing with this book. There is quite a bit of celebrating going on, plus a nice little announcement jammed in the middle for you to (hopefully) savor – and get you to listen on a regular basis. If you haven’t read my friend JJ’s blog The Invisible Event . . . well, you are probably a stranger to these parts, so what are you waiting for? (The link to the episode can be found on JJ’s latest post here.) And if you haven’t listened to JJ’s podcast, In GAD We Trust . . . oh man! what are you DOING with your life??? It’s available where all good podcasts can be found. The next episode dropping will feature three Christie fans discussing the great, late novel After the Funeral. Two of those fans are JJ and Moira, and the third one with the squeaky voice is somebody I know intimately . . .
Finally, I recognize that most of you who have gotten this far must have already read Murder on the Way. If, by some chance, you followed along without reading the book and are looking for my recommendation, well . . . Those of us who look to the past for much of our entertainment go with eyes wide open that uncomfortable, often horrific social attitudes will be present. But Roscoe’s novel is jam-packed with this problem on every page. The killer’s plan hinges on the supposition that the island folk are “primitive” and easily duped by their superstitious natures. The book’s hero seems to share the villain’s contempt for the black characters. On the plus side, most of the evil characters are white (and receive a just comeuppance), while two of the black characters ultimately come off as, er, somewhat heroic. The comparison of Uncle Eli to Hitler provides a small measure of comfort that Roscoe probably disapproves of the whole “white supremacy” thing.
I’m not sure if that’s enough, to be honest. There are other books that go really crazy without resorting to racism (I’ve illustrated some of my favorites throughout.) Don’t get me wrong: Murder on the Way is a rousing adventure tale, even if the mystery is easy to see through, with a nice double locked-room puzzle nestled in the middle. It is pulp fiction at its dirtiest and pulpiest. But if you pick the book up, please do so with your eyes wide open.
Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!