William DeAndrea did something very impressive to kick start his career as a mystery novelist: he won back-to-back Edgars for his novels Killed in the Ratings and The HOG Murders. I read the latter, which starred eccentric Italian genius, Professor Niccolo Benedetti, philosopher and amateur criminologist: a traditional Great Detective in a modern-day setting. In The HOG Murders, he tracked down a serial killer who went by the name of HOG.
More than a decade later, DeAndrea revisited Benedetti with The Werewolf Murders and The Manx Murders. However, I’m at the mercy of the Interlibrary Loan system here, so instead of reading the series in chronological order, I have to take what I can get—thus, I read the third instalment in the Benedetti trilogy: The Max Murders.
Because a trilogy it is— there seems to be a definite note of finality in this novel, unlike the Lobo Blacke/Quinn Booker novel Fatal Elixir, which gives you a tantalising hint of what the series could have become. Benedetti allows his assistant, Ron Gentry, to figure stuff out on his own. Gentry must learn not to rely on Benedetti for the answers, which is compared to the way a child learns that Dad can’t solve everything, and that you need to take initiative yourself sometimes. “I think the Professor’s finally about to give you your diploma, dear,” says Gentry’s wife, Dr. Janet Higgins, at one point.
Of course, I could be entirely wrong: DeAndrea could’ve been planning to make this his major series for all I know. But the note of finality does seem to be there. Benedetti shows some humility for a change, and it is Ron Gentry who figures out the final piece of the puzzle. The professor no longer has a spotless record and this may have been DeAndrea’s way of retiring him.
In any case, The Manx Murders tells an interesting tale. It’s not about a serial killer terrorizing a city, but about a family feud that gets out of hand. The Pembroke twins were inseparable until one of the boys fell in love with a woman and the other married her. From that point on, the two have irritated each other— one loves birds, and the other suddenly decides he’s a cat person. But things become very awkward indeed when Clyde Pembroke is accused by his twin Henry of somehow spiriting all the birds away from Henry’s part of the estate. It’s not as if the birds were poisoned, for there are no corpses: they just up and vanished, although on Clyde’s part of the estate, the birds seem to be getting along dandily. After a cat is found dumped at Clyde’s doorstep, brutally murdered, Clyde Pembroke is kidnapped and held for a million dollar ransom… and all this eventually leads to murder.
In a way, this is an impossible crime novel, what with the disappearance of the birds and all. The main clues and the general idea of the trick are very obvious, but DeAndrea explains it with a devilish excitement that’s contagious. I really liked the whole idea, although the identity of the culprit is quite obvious.
I haven’t got much to grumble about. DeAndrea’s usual sense of humour is here, and it’s just a really fun book to read. And heaven knows, I needed a fun book to read after struggling through a collection of Sherlock Holmes pastiches so awful, I couldn’t even write a half-decent review of it. The note of finality I describe, however, left me with a somewhat depressed feeling I can’t quite shake off…
Incidentally, in this book, we get more confirmation of Benedetti’s (and, I assume, DeAndrea’s) love of Westerns. He particularly loves the John Ford-John Wayne cavalry trilogy, and is seen watching She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Once Upon a Time in the West, taking brief breaks from abstract painting, a process which helps him solve his cases.