I’ve been reading a lot of really good books lately – it’s been an intentional indulgence in my “rainy day” collection – and I have to say, Murder on the Way is the most fun I’ve had in nearly as far back as I can remember. That’s not to say that it features the most perplexing mystery, the most clever solution, or the most shocking twist. No, not by a long shot. That’s where I feel that I disclaimer is necessary: Murder on the Way isn’t really a mystery, it’s a balls to the wall action thriller. No, scratch that – it’s actually is a mystery masquerading as a balls to the wall action thriller.
On the surface this is… I don’t even know. It starts out with your classic mystery set up – a dozen characters called to Haiti for the reading of the will of a wealthy plantation owner. The will stipulates that all of the money goes to a single individual within 24 hours of the funeral, but also provides a line of succession should the prior recipients be deceased. Oh yeah – and no one’s allowed to leave the property before the 24 hours is up, or they forfeit their inheritance.
Given the band of miscreants assembled (our point of view character and his girlfriend exempt), we’re set up for a disastrous result. The potential heirs start dropping like flies and under some perplexing circumstances. The most notable involves a man discovered inside a burning room with a bullet hole through the top of his skull, despite all doors and windows being locked from the inside. I’d tag this as an impossible crime, but Roscoe needlessly leaves some wiggle room by way of a partially opened transom.
We may still be in mystery territory up to this point, but then all hell breaks loose. The story from this point on is a breathtaking mix between Battle Royale and The Evil Dead. I’m sure that doesn’t sound like your thing (assuming my film analogies even clicked for you), but believe me, it’s exquisite.
What makes it all so good is Theodore Roscoe is one hell of an author. If there’s any other writer that can paint a scene like John Dickson Carr, here he is. Every scene is a vivid experience, and the setting of a mouldering jungle mansion in the throes of a tropical storm provides Roscoe with a canvas with which to convey the decay, the deluge, the dark, and the danger. Roscoe can transform a moment on a staircase into carved mahogany, the glint of dust and gun smoke in the air, and the dread of the unknown lurking below. Murder on the Way is absolutely a visceral read; you’ll pant and stumble and bleed your way through the pages. There’s so much of this that can only connect with you once you’ve read it – a rain soaked game of cat and mouse, a harrowing marathon through an endless tunnel, a bruised battle amongst a horde over a freshly dug grave, the hopeless claustrophobia of being buried alive.
Despite the chaos and carnage, in the end – much as the attentive reader will have suspected – this is a mystery; a whodunnit wrapped in a hurricane. Evaluated purely as a mystery novel, this is probably a moderate success: I saw through the overall twist early on, although there’s enough going on that I couldn’t tie it completely to all of the events. Plus, Roscoe threw in a fine red herring that distracted my attention from my original theory. The semi-locked room solution isn’t anything to write home about, so don’t approach this book purely as an impossible crime novel. Still, there’s a fine denouement that stitches everything together in a way that’s most satisfying, even if you anticipate some of it.
I’ve got to be upfront that this book contains an ample helping of racism of the era. You have a novel written in 1935 set in Haiti, and the American perspective of the locals may well leave a permanent grimace on your face. It’s a risk you run when reading books of the era that stray out of the opulent confines of the country house, and serves as a reminder to the modern reader just how acceptable it would have been in years past to publish this sort of view without a thought. Is there a contradiction somewhere in there – to enjoy a writer so much, and yet to have the work tainted in this way? No doubt there is, but accepting it as a novel of the times, Murder on the Way is the most engrossing things I’ve read in a while.
I’ve been staking out Roscoe for a while, having snatched up his short story collection Four Corners (“volume 1” – will there be a volume 2?) and what seems like a potential mystery novel Only In New England. Roscoe’s mystery output seems to be a bit limited, as he seems to have been more of a pulp adventure author. If the pulp adventures are as well written as Murder on the Way, then I’m going to end up reading them. Another title I have on my radar is To Live and Die in Dixie, which seems like it might be a mystery, although I haven’t been able to find a description yet.