MARTEN CUMBERLAND – The Knife Will Fall. Doubleday/Crime Club, US, hardcover, 1943.

   In most of the mysteries written by Cumberland under his own name, the detective was the formidable Commisaire Saturnin Dax of the French Surete , so it came as a bit of a surprise to me when I recently discovered that Cumberland was an accomplished English journalist for most of his life and was apparently as British as they come.

   (Even less known than Cumberland is today, is the fact that under the pseudonym of Kevin O’Hara he also wrote of the adventures of a London private eye named Chico Brett. None of these books seems ever to have been published in this country.)

   In this novel, my own first introduction to the gentleman, the phlegmatic Dax is described as a great bulk of a man; otherwise, our picture of him is reduced and restricted by seeing only his brain at work . If in personality he seems imaginatively dull, his assistant, the English-loving Felix Norman, in strong contrast, does more and reacts more.

The case itself is a peculiarly disjointed one. The connection between a series of victims who seem never to have met or known each other before is the playing card each of them received as an advance warning. One aspect of the case, that of a wife who strangely disappears after being observed reading about the murders in the papers, is even more tenuously tied in.

   False clues – red herrings – abound, many of them deliberately set by the gang of killers, led by a mysterious mastermind, or so Dax hypothesizes. The central part of the story sags rather badly. There is no sparkle, no real verve to keep our interest alive. Not until a wholly unexpected killing takes place, taking us by total surprise, are we jolted out of our apathy. The ending is a hodgepodge, but I have to admit that the facts do fit what seemed till then a nearly unexplainable series of events.

   A very strange book. Very much out of the ordinary, as if Cumberland had caught the pattern of French thought as well as he sees to have aught the rhythm of the French tongue, (Take this observation with a grain of salt. I’m no expert on either one.)

Rating: C plus.

–Very slightly revised from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 5, No. 2, March/April 1981.


Bibliographic Update: There were in all 34 adventures of Comissaire Dax, not all of which were ever  published in this country, along with a sizable number of standalone mysteries. As for Chico Brett, whom I mentioned in the review, there were 16 of those, and as I said, none have been published over here. As for the author himself, he has a very short entry on Wikipedia, which you may find here.