ELIZABETH BACKHOUSE – Death Came Uninvited. Robert Hale, UK, hardcover, 1957.

   You can find unusual items on eBay, and for me, this is one I recently ended up winning. My copy is a rather shabby ex-library edition which cost me perhaps a pound, plus double that for shipping from England.

   Elizabeth Backhouse, the flap of the jacket says, is a young Australian writer, and this is her first novel. This sends me to Al Hubin’s [Crime Fiction IV] almost immediately, mostly out of curiosity to see if she ever wrote another.

   And indeed she did. Here are all her books of crime fiction, at least, in chronological order:

         Death Came Uninvited. Hale, 1957. [Inspector Christopher Marsden]
         The Mists Came Down. Hale, 1959.
         The Web of Shadows. Hale, 1960. [Inspector Prentis]
         The Night Has Eyes. Hale, 1961. [Inspector Marsden]
         Death of a Clown. Hale, 1962. [Inspector Prentis]
         Death Climbs a Hill. Hale, 1963. [Inspector Prentis]

   Inspector Marsden is her English policeman, while Inspector Prentis, about whom I know nothing else, is Australian. It may be that Ms. Backhouse’s story-telling techniques took on extra dimensions as she continued to write, but in at least her first book, we see and follow Marsden when he’s on the job, and nowhere else, so as it turns out, I know very little about him as well.

   No wife, girl friend, no home life, nothing at all except — it’s not much, but it will have to do — he does have a dog, one who follows his master around with him as he interviews suspects and follows clues. The dog’s name is Spodge, which sounds terribly authentically British to me.

   In pure pulp fashion, you might say — not the hard-boiled Hammett stuff — but the gentleman-adventurer-slash-drawing-room sort of tale, the murderer kills his first victim using a sealed envelope filled with ammonia, leaving a calling card for the crime, signed “The Uninvited.”

   And so the pursuit is on. There are lots of suspects in an increasingly complicated plot, but what Marsden and his men failed to do, it seems to me, is to ever ask the question, “Why such a complicated means to do murder?” and “Why did the murderer feel that he was uninvited?”

   Or, where is Ellery Queen when we need him? As for me, I let Marsden and his men do all of the legwork, I concentrated on the second question (the first one has no answer), and I worked out the entire solution before any of them.

   I don’t brag. I only tell it how it is. The case is still entertaining, save for a small amount of muddled telling toward the end, and I could see why. The author was trying to keep the surprise ending up her sleeve for as long as she could, and there wasn’t nearly room enough for her to maneuver.

– October 2003