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Book Report: An Overdose of Death

Aside from the Harry Potter book, I think the custom of giving books one title in the UK and a different title in the US is a thing of the past. No, wasn’t one of Stephen Fry’s book’s given a new title, almost tricking me into reading it again? Well, anyway, One, Two, Buckle My Shoe was published in the US as The Patriotic Murders and then as An Overdose of Death, which is what the copy was titled when I read it at a friend’s house this weekend. On one level, it’s particularly annoying, as Agatha Christie had set the whole thing up with each chapter titled with a couplet from the nursery rhyme all deliberate like, but an another level, the nursery rhyme structure is a bit superimposed here, rather than being part of the book itself as in Ten Little And Then There Were None.

I still think that I like reading mystery novels, but when I do read them, I get quite cranky. This is largely because I tend to judge the story forwards rather than backwards. That is, the whole point of a murder mystery is that we are presented with the results of a sequence of actions, and we (and the detective) work our way back to the beginning from there (while, in a good book, simultaneously working our way forward with an equally engrossing story about the detective and the investigation). Eventually, we have reached the beginning, and I used to judge a story largely on whether the story as figured out would in fact have the results we saw at the beginning. In the last ten years or so, I have taken up the unfortunate habit of thinking about the story forward, and seeing if it makes any sense at all.

Here, then, is the forward story: There’s this guy, Alistair Blunt, an Englishman working for a bank in India in between the wars. He’s married to a provincial actress, but when the bank’s owner (a tremendously rich heiress) falls in love with him, he pretends to be single, marries (bigamously) the heiress, and works his way up to be one of the most influential bankers in the world. His first wife, meanwhile, accompanies him to England, takes up residence in a variety of pied-à-terres under a variety of identities, using her actressy actressy skills. For the purposes of the story, we’ll call her Mrs. Chapman, which is the name under which she has an apartment in London. Eventually, the heiress dies, but rather than producing and marrying the first wife, they continue to meet clandestinely. So far, this is all fine, for a story. Right?

And then one day, Mr. Blunt is approached by an old friend of his wife’s from the theater in India, a silly woman just home, who coincidentally made friends on the boat with a blackmailer, so now the banker is in trouble. He and Mrs. Chapman decide, quite reasonably (for a murder mystery) to kill both the silly woman and the blackmailer. So. They get the silly woman up to Mrs. Chapman’s apartment, easily enough, poison her and then bash her dead face in, making her unrecognizable, then lock her in a trunk and leave her there.

Then they get appointments at the dentist just before the blackmailer’s (they all have the same dentist, of course, which could be explained, but the appointment business must have been a trick). Mrs. Chapman dresses as the silly woman and goes in, but secrets herself in the back of the office somewhere; then Mr. Blunt goes in and they shoot the dentist. They hide the body for a short time, then Mr. Blunt pretends to be the dentist (the blackmailer doesn’t know the dentist, because he’s from overseas, but also evidently he doesn’t recognize Mr. Blunt, who is perhaps wearing a false nose and moustache along with the white coat) and injects the blackmailer with an overdose of whatever, pretends to fill his tooth and sends him home. Then they swap the dental records of the silly woman and Mrs. Chapman, so that the corpse with the bashed-in face will appear to be Mrs. Chapman (an identity which can be easily shed), and the two of them arrange the body of the dead dentist to make it look like suicide, and then they leave. At the inquest, it is believed that the dentist, having accidentally overdosed the blackmailer (who dies later that day), is overcome with regret and commits suicide. Yes? No, that’s all crazy! Kills the dentist and pretends to fill teeth? A banker? That’s his idea for murder? And he didn’t, you know, keep thinking until he came up with a cleverer plan?

Anyway, a fellow sees the dead body, and has to be framed for what is now suspected murder (lots of story here, some of which is quite entertaining) so the banker hires the witness as a gardener (more or less) and then stashes a loaded pistol in the hedge, and then arranges to be nearby with the detective when the gardener clips that part of the hedge. The gun goes off, missing everybody, but the fellow is found with the gun, and is arrested for attempted murder, and is under suspicion of the murder of the dentist as well, and maybe of Mrs. Chapman. But the detective figures it out.

What? Puts a loaded gun in the hedge? That’s not clever, that’s insane! How could anybody think that would work? This guy became a successful financier? He put a loaded pistol in a hedge for the gardener to accidentally set off! A loaded pistol! In the hedge! Was his plan!

As an explanation for evidence, it all works fine. Why was the dentist killed? Why was there a corpse in the trunk? Why did the witness go to work for the banker, and why did he have a gun? All explained. The only problem is that the explanation requires a banker who is trying to get away with murder to say I know, I’ll pretend to be a dentist. Amazing he didn’t get away with it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,