MARGARET ERSKINE – The Woman at Belguardo. Doubleday Crime Club, US, hardcover, November 1961. UK edition: Hodder & Stoughton, hc, 1961. Paperback reprints: Penguin 2464, UK, 1966. Ace Star K-295, US, 1974; Bantam, US, December 1982.

MARGARET ERSKINE The Woman at Belguardo

   Margaret Erskine (a pen name) was the author of some twenty-one detective novels written between 1938 and 1978, all being cases solved by (Chief) Inspector Septimus Finch, he being promoted somewhere along the way.

   When reprinted by Ace in the 1970s, many of them were published as “gothic romances,” though I imagine those expecting a gothic romance when they bought one were rather surprised.

   While there are some sound observations about people in The Woman at Belguardo, and some deft turns of phrase, what reading the book has done for me is to have convinced me all the more that writing a detective novel is one of the hardest things in the world to do, if the goal is to do it well – and which is why so many mystery writers today steer Far Clear of the Real Thing.

MARGARET ERSKINE The Woman at Belguardo

   The plot first, though. A woman whose passion is life is obsessively tormenting the people in her life is (not surprisingly) found murdered in her home after returning unexpectedly from Europe with a new fiancé along with her, to the surprise of someone perhaps. (Someone more significantly surprised than everyone else, that is).

   But that may not be the only reason someone saw fit to kill her (and the cover the Crime Club novel is awfully explicit, if you can make it out – her head is smashed in by a huge potted plant after she’s been strangled).

   There are suspects galore, and Inspector Finch is hard pressed to follow all of the leads and make sense of them – most of them false ones, of course.

   I suspect that Margaret Erskine knew little about police procedure, or if she did, she allows Finch a slip-up or two in this case, which is one or two more than I would have allowed. She’s also weak in identifying the characters immediately, and also weak in allowing questions answered later, not when then should have been, which is when they occurred to me.

MARGARET ERSKINE The Woman at Belguardo

   But it’s the motive that seems the weakest to me, although I have to admit that it was foreshadowed quite well from the beginning — and who am I to judge the actions of a man who’s in a fit of rage? The essential clue, the one that clinches the case, though, seems especially poorly handled. It sits badly in my mind, and every time I try to think it through, the less well it sits.

   When it comes down to it, keeping in mind my comments up above in paragraph two, there is little more in this detective novel but the detection.

   Finch himself is a genial enough cipher. He handles himself well but with little indication of a personal life, makes small but quantum leaps of logic along the way, and I have the distinct feeling that I won’t read another of his adventures for another 20 or 30 years, which is how long it’s been since I read an earlier one.