With the exception of Death’s Old Sweet Song, Jonathan Stagge novels are notoriously hard to find. Tracking down a nice looking paperback is especially difficult, even more so if you try to purchase in my bargain bin price range. Imagine my jealousy then when Brad from Ah Sweet Mystery mentioned to me that he’d snagged a copy of Turn of the Table for a mere nine dollars. I hadn’t even recalled seeing Turn of the Table available, much less in a gorgeous Popular Library edition, and I swear I had just been hunting for Stagge a day or two before. I was compelled to take another look, and imagine my delight when I found another copy of Turn of the Table for the same unbelievable price of nine dollars. I snatched it up immediately.
What followed was immediate guilt/confusion, as it sank in that I may well have purchased the exact same copy that Brad had told me about. That guilt was compounded a few days later when my copy arrived in the post, and Brad mentioned that his still hadn’t come. Yeah… I stole this book for him by some quirk of the online shopping cart…
Actually, no. Brad’s copy did eventually show up, which saved my conscience a bit of weight (although I missed out on some most secret gloating). It leaves us though with the perplexing mystery of how two copies of a Popular Library edition of a Stagge novel that I’ve never even seen for sale before (nor offered since) showed up for the price of nine dollars on the exact same day. My copy is definitely the real deal, so I guess someone was just unwittingly offloading a library containing some duplicates.
Anyway, to the book: yeah, honestly, it kind of sucks. I don’t know why I keep hunting down these Jonathan Stagge / Patrick Quentin / Q Patrick novels, because for the most part they aren’t that great. I suppose I’m looking for another fix reminiscent of what I got out of Cottage Sinister and Death and the Maiden. Well, I didn’t get that here.
The writing collective that published the Stagge/Quentin novels are competent enough writers, in that you’ll overall enjoy the general vibe of the stories. Where they suffer is that many of the plots don’t offer anything that really satisfies what a Golden Age mystery reader is probably looking for. Turn of the Table is much in the same camp as Death, My Darling Daughters and Death for Dear Clara in that while the journey is decent enough, there just isn’t really any meat on the bone when it comes to the mystery.
Turn of the Table finds Stagge series amateur detective Dr Westlake in the city, having traded houses (and practices) for the summer with another doctor. Westlake (42) spends his evenings creeping on his teenage neighbors using their pool, and through such good graces finds himself embroiled in the drama next door. Said drama concerns table tipping, which is basically a seance in which participants sit around a table and listen to it mysteriously knock out the letters of the alphabet. Good god, can you imagine counting out letters – in the dark, with no paper to track things, mind you – just for this one sentence alone? ’T’ by itself would be twenty knocks, and you’d be sitting there for over a minute just to get out the word “the”. Plus, there’s no punctuation! If I were at the helm, I’d have the whole mystery revolve around a misunderstanding due to the lack of an Oxford comma, but I digress.
Anyway, during a table tipping session, the ghost doing the tapping forecasts the death of one of the members of the seance, who in turn promptly drops dead. Worse, it appears that Dr Westlake, in an attempt to save the victim, may have accidentally administered a fatal dose of poison.
I kind of hate summarizing plots of these mediocre books because it probably makes them sound more interesting than they are. The seance isn’t creepy at all, the bit where Westlake may be fingered for the crime is tiresome, and there’s nothing really grabbing about this plot hook that so many other authors could have done wonders with.
The cover of my Popular Library edition sports the question “was the killer a vampire?”, while the back asks “vampire or werewolf?” This comes from another subplot where some unseen character is going around biting people on the neck. Which… just doesn’t work out, because there’s never really any vibe of the supernatural. And it’s just silly, because characters are hiding the fact that they’ve been bitten by someone, and apparently some characters even know who is doing the biting but won’t say who. It’s one of those subplots that just feels unnatural and you can tell it’s going to have a weak explanation. And yeah, the explanation behind it all is of the sort that makes me not want to read stories like this at all. Books like this feel plotted for the screen, where you can just tune out and take in the drama, but in written form it’s honestly just weak.
As ridiculous as it is, Turn of the Table has a respectably lengthy ending that gives you plenty of details tying things all together. There’s no clever epiphany to be found, but if you can sit back and turn off your brain a bit you’ll get a solid fifty pages of revelations and twists, as canned and predictable as some may be. It’s like the incredibly dumbed down summer blockbuster version of a denouement, in that it kind of gives you what you want, but honestly, it’s not what you want.
And yet, you’ll probably catch me returning to Quentin/Stagge in a few months. I just can’t explain it, but I’ve seen enough good that I just want to capture it again. Maybe eventually I’ll figure out the career arc enough to realize where the danger zones lie, but for now I’m picking random cards and my hands haven’t been good.
Turn of the Table was apparently also published under the title “Funeral for Five”, which makes absolutely no sense to me, as I’m not sure which of the characters the “five” would refer to. There aren’t five deaths. Maybe there are five core family members? I couldn’t be bothered to count.