"I'm a wicked city woman. Like your mother warned you about."
- Lucille Ball in a classic episode of I Love Lucy
Tyler's La Belle Dame is Lady Annabelle Muntham who Elsie, Ethelred's outspoken agent, sees through immediately. And so should any astute reader. Ethelred has a habit of falling for women who have only their own self interest at heart. His ex-wife was at the core of the shenanigans in a previous book. Will he ever learn? Elsie is there to try and open Ethelred's eyes for the umpteenth time and steer him out of the path of another manipulative user. She'd have better luck with a blind man.
This time out Ethelred and Elsie face one of detective fiction's most experimental plot devices - the locked room. At the end of a dinner party the guests discover that their host, Robert Muntham, has been strangled in his locked library. It appears to have been impossible for anyone to have done the deed and left the room. The library door had two sliding bolts on the inside. The guests are forced to go outside the house and break the window in order to get into the library. But this is no ordinary locked room mystery. Don't be upset if there is a lack of wizardry in the Dickson Carr mode, but do look for some conventions turned upside down in Tyler's usual subversive style. Firstly, no one believes it's a murder and everyone is eager to accept it as suicide. Everyone except one person.
Lady Muntham will not accept the absurd notion of suicide. The police try to convince her that there have been cases of suicide by strangulation and even Ethelred is aware of some noteworthy true crime instances of this unusual method of shuffling off one's mortal coil. She teases and cajoles Ethelred to use his mystery writer skills and do some investigation of his own. Oddly enough, when Ethelred (and ever watchful Elsie, of course) begin their snooping and prodding evidence of an intruder begins to pile up, both physical evidence apparently overlooked by the police and two eyewitness accounts of a mysterious prowler wearing a blue suit. Lady Annabelle seems to be getting everything she wants out of the investigation. Elsie smells a rat. It's all a little too convenient. As the investigation continues each of the dinner party guests has a dirty little secret revealed complicating the plot as only the best of mystery stories do so well. Suddenly motives are popping up all over like...well, like red herrings. It seems that Annabelle may be right that some devilish magician managed to wring her husband's neck and dematerialize from the library.
As an added bonus we get our first look at the fiction of Ethelred Tressider. In his J. K. Elliott guise he writes historical mysteries set in the 14th century. Interspersed throughout the multiple narratives are chapters of this work in progress. Master Thomas, a customs agent and employee of the arrogant and talentless Geoffrey Chaucer who, if we are to believe Ethelred, got all his ideas for The Canterbury Tales from Master Thomas. There is a murder investigation in the book Ethelred is writing and it too has echoes in the locked room mystery of Muntham Court.
This was my favorite of the books so far. It was dense with literary allusions and it was all I could do to stop myself from jumping to my Cambridge Guide to check on all the references. The interconnections of the three story lines, the alternating narrations (a standard device in Tyler's books) and the trenchantly witty dialog (mostly in Elsie's wicked narration) all came together for a winning reading experience. This book deservedly won Tyler "The Last Laugh" award for best comic crime novel at this year's Crime Fest. A hearty congratulations to him. I eagerly await my copy of The Herring on the Nile soon to be released in the UK which I ordered several months ago. I no longer can wait for the US releases of these books.
NOTE (posted one day later): Forget to mention this. Although I own and reviewed the UK edition (pictured in the scan above) the US version should be available this month from Felony & Mayhem as the author himself reminded me in an email he sent. I knew this and had purposely waited to post this review until I knew the book would be available here in the US.
And for those unfamiliar with Lucy's wicked city woman, behold: