Sat 27 Nov 2010
R. C. ASHBY – He Arrived at Dusk. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1933. Macmillan, US, hc, 1933.
Truly a little masterpiece of a book. Reminiscent of Christie at the height of her powers in its brilliant use of misdirection. William Mertoun, an antiquarian, is hired to catalog the estate of a bed-ridden colonel. He is doing this at the behest of the colonel’s nurse and housekeeper, Winifred Goff, a woman who seems terrified of strange poltergeist activities in the house and keeps a close guard on her patient whom she allows no one to see.
Recently the colonel’s brother fell to his death off a cliff and there is talk that it was no accident. While cataloging the dreary and seemingly worthless library, Mertoun learns from the colonel’s nephew Charles Barr of a local legend. The area is haunted by the ghost of an ancient Roman soldier and the village townspeople are deeply superstitious of it – so much so that no one will set foot on the grounds.
However, Mertoun soon discovers that a brazen shepherd has dared to ignore all the warnings of the townspeople and has set up a home for his flock amid the ruins of the haunted tower a few yards from the Barr estate.
Soon the shepherd is discovered dead – an ancient Roman sword sticking in his back and all believe that the ghost has murdered him.
The supernatural aspects pervade the first third of the book which is narrated by Mertoun who slowly begins to believe in the existence of the ghost – especially after a seance in which something resembling the ghost manifests itself in the manor and later he does see the ghost on the grounds.
He runs to confront it and that is when he discovers the body of the shepherd. And only a few days later the colonel seems to vanish from his room.
The second portion of the novel takes the form of a diary written by Miss Goff’s brother, Hamleth, in which we learn of an investigation into the death of the shepherd and the real reason for the disappearance of the colonel.
Finally the last section is narrated by a Scotland Yard inspector who finally unravels the mystery of the ghost, who killed the shepherd and what happened to the colonel.
What is so remarkable about He Arrived at Dusk is the use of the narrator Mertoun and his perceptions of everything, and the role of Miss Goff behind the scenes, which is perhaps the best part of the book. Much of what occurs is through her orchestration. That it fails to produce what she had intended is no fault of her own.
Really a classic of its kind. One of the best blending of supernatural and detective novel genres written in the 1930s. Interestingly, this pre-dates Du Maurier’s Rebecca by several years and yet has quite a bit of similarity in that book’s use of a frightened narrator whose interpretation of events may or may not always be perfect.
Bibliography: The author’s crime fiction only. Taken from the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin.
ASHBY, R(uby) C(onstance Annie). 1899-1966.
Death on Tiptoe (n.) Hodder 1930.
Plot Against a Widow (n.) Hodder 1932.
He Arrived at Dusk (n.) Hodder 1933.
Out Went the Taper (n.) Hodder 1934.
As Ruby Ferguson, her married name, she became quite well known as the author of a number of children’s “pony books,” among many other works of fiction. See Wikipedia for more information.
J. F.’s review of Death on Tiptoe will appear here on this blog soon.