Like his thoughtful Verdict of Twelve, Raymond Postgate’s Somebody at the Door serves as both an intriguing puzzle to solve and as commentary on mysteries in general. The novel begins with a character sketch of the disagreeable town Councillor Henry James Greyling. We follow him from work to the train home, where he shares a compartment with eight others. The next thing we know, Greying is dead of gas poisoning. Investigator Holly begins asking questions, only to find that most of the people in that train compartment plus two others have motive to kill the man. So, who done it? And, which of the several motives is enough to drive someone to kill?
Motive, means, and opportunity form a trio that police and detectives have used to narrow down a list of suspects and find the actual criminal(s). In the case of Henry Greyling’s murder, all of the suspects seem to have equal access to the mustard gas that did the councillor in as well as plenty of opportunity to have administered the fatal dose during the hours between the train’s arrival and Greyling’s appearance at his home. It all comes down to motive.
Postgate was clearly enamored of writing character sketches. After we meet Greyling and find out how he died, we are treated to a series of long biographies of all the suspects. These biographies don’t point to a clear murderer. Greyling might have been killed because he knew too much about someone’s troubled past, criminal activities, adultery, to conceal his own crimes, or because he caused a lot of trouble for someone. Each of the motives seems more or less plausible. But at the same time, what motive is enough to justify—at least to the murderer—killing another human being? I thought about this over and over as I met each new suspect.
It’s a pity Postgate wrote so few mysteries. Both Verdict of Twelve and Somebody at the Door have much to say about why people do what they do when it comes to crime and justice. I feel like I’ve walked miles in characters’ shoes while I read and I loved the opportunity to really examine how past events affect those characters. Most mysteries I’ve read from the Golden Age focus almost entirely on the means and opportunity, the how of the crime, rather than the why. Postgate’s novels are all about the why. So, instead of having just a clever brain teaser to work out, I’m left thinking about the kind of questions I’ve always enjoyed pondering about justice, ethics, motivation, and vengeance.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 December 2017.