FRANCIS DUNCAN – So Pretty a Problem. Mordecai Tremaine #5. John Long, UK, hardcover, 1950. Sourcebooks, US, trade paperback, 2018.

   It’s strange, but I have a feeling that Francis Duncan’s detective novels are selling now as well as they ever did, if not a whole lot better. Four of his six novels are back in print, and in the list of the titles at the end of this review, I’ve added the current Amazon sales ranking. They may not look spectacular, but believe me, they are — especially for detective fiction. Most of the books I have listed for sale on Amazon have rankings in the 3 to 8 millions. I don’t have any books there over 20 million.

   For an author no one had even heard of a year ago at this time, that’s quite an achievement.

   Duncan’s series character is a chap named Mordecai Tremaine, a retired tobacconist whose hobbies are reading romance novels and solving crimes. He’s done so well at the latter that’s he’s on a first name basis with several policemen at Scotland Yard, and they don’t mind in the least if he does some investigating for them on his own.

   The structure of So Pretty a Problem is an odd one, especially at first glance. Part I consists of the murder and the immediate investigation. This section is about 90 pages long, and it serves largely as a prologue to Part II, all of which takes place before the murder. This portion, over 160 pages long, consists entirely of Tremaine’s interactions with the murder victim and his wife and all of the other suspects-to-be. Ordinarily this section would come first, chronologically speaking, but 160 pages in a detective novel before the first murder occurs is an awfully long time to keep a reader’s interest at a high edge of anticipation.

   Part Three reverts to real time and Tremaine’s meticulously worked out explanation, including one of those “gathering the suspects together in one room” types of detective story expositions. Since this section is over 130 pages long, any complaints that current mysteries are longer than than they used to be will fall on deaf ears when you compare them to this one.

   Dead is an extremely successful high-society artist. He is found shot to death in his isolated home off the coast of England, connected to the mainland by means of only a single footbridge that an invalid lady is constantly watching. The only person found in the house except for the dead man is his wife, who tells two obviously false stories to the police, who believe neither one, but neither do they believe that she is the killer.

   I enjoyed this one. What impressed me the most about the story is how well Duncan made the explanation fit the facts so precisely, and yet before the explanation, there does not seem that there is one that’s possible. Knowing human character is a big asset for Mordecai Tremaine, and if this is an example of how he unravels a mystery as complicated as this, I’m going to go on and read all of his other cases in solving crimes.

       The Mordecai Tremaine series –

Murderer’s Bluff. Jenkins 1938
They’ll Never Find Out. Jenkins 1944
Murder Has a Motive. Long 1947 (*) #600,815
Murder for Christmas. Long 1949 (*) #119,807


So Pretty a Problem. Long 1950 (*) #192,556
In at the Death. Long 1952 (*) #88,764
Behold a Fair Woman. Long 1954 (*) #123,776

   Those marked with a (*) have been recently been reprinted in the US by Sourcebooks.