Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Dubious Doctor

Medice, cura te ipsum

Am I the only one who has to think of Agatha Christie upon seeing the cover of today's book? I am sure I have a few Christie pockets that have the exact same cover style/concept.

After the unfortunate accident that took Dr. Gilbert Henderson's life, his business partner Alan Turner took over their doctor's practice and in the two months that have passed, thing started to settle down again. Many years ago, Henderson settled down in the town of Silbridge, not too far away from Glasgow and started his GP's office for the higher segment of the town population. After losing his first wife, with whom he had two children, Henderson re-married with the beautiful Elizabeth Fairgrieve. Alan later become Henderson's business partner, occupying the living quarters above the practice, which is connected directly to the Henderson residence next door. Alan also became good friends with the Hendersons personally. The connecting door between the two residences was always kept unlocked, more often than not, they'd all have supper together. It were also Elizabeth and Alan who first found the body of Henderson lying dead in the doctor's practice in the night: it appeared Henderson had slipped and knocked himself out as he was lighting the gas stove, and that he had suffocated. Elizabeth moved back to London after Henderson's death, changing her name back to Fairgrieve and with that things died down.

But rumors soon start to spread after Elizabeth returns to Silbridge, two months after Henderson's death. Alan had informed Elizabeth that her father was in a critical state and that he could pass away soon, but there are some in town who suspect that Alan and Elizabeth are having an affair and had even spent a night together soon before Henderson's death, and that they, being the ones who 'discovered' Henderson's body, had actually killed him. What's more, there are quite some people who are very eager to repeat these rumors, including Mayor Hackett (the uncle of Alan's fiancée Joan) and while Joan and her family are perhaps not convinced Alan's a killer, they do believe Elizabeth is bad business and want Alan to cut all ties with her as soon as possible. Which is easier said than done, because Elizabeth confides to Alan that someone has sent her note in London threatening her to return to Silbridge and soon after her arrival, she's attacked by someone. She suspect it has to with Henderson's death and implores Alan to help her, knowing that nobody else in this town is willing to believe her. Alan thus struggles with the wish to help Elizabeth, while also not wanting to alienate the others in his life in D.M. Devine's Doctors Also Die (1962).

I don't recall exactly when I first heard of Doctors Also Die, but I think I was looking for interesting whodunnits in the vein of Ellery Queen and the logic school and it was mentioned somewhere. It had been on the radar for a while, but the book wasn't in print anymore and used copies were going for quite a lot more than I was willing to pay for it, so I kinda forgot about the title until I realized there was a Japanese version in print and easily available. In general, I try to read books in the original language if I can read them that way (not that I know that many languages, but I can read four comfortably), but yeah, if the options are to read a translated version or a used copy going for ten times the price of a normal book, I'm not going to stick to the original text. I had never read anything by Devine by the way, and while the original Doctors Also Die isn't in print at this moment, some of his other books are still easily available.

Anyway, getting back to the reason why I first became interested in this book, I do have to make clear right away that this isn't really a whodunnit in the style of Queen, so no long lists of characteristics which apply to the murderer and where you gather clues like who's left and righthanded and who knew what at what time to cross off people of the suspect list. That said, Doctors Also Die is a cleverly written whodunnit, which coincidentally also reminds me of a certain Ellery Queen novel: Calamity Town, as both books feature limited casts, set in small rural towns with rumors and gossip playing a big role in the story. I did enjoy Doctors Also Die a lot more than Calamity Town though, as the mystery is plotted a bit more tightly. 

The story starts with Alan reminiscing about Henderson's death two months ago, and realizing that it's only now he himself is starting to believe that Henderson's death wasn't an accident. However, if it was murder, it seems very few people could have committed the crime: Henderson was in the doctor's office after hours, but obviously, the door was locked at that hour, so only people with the key or people inside the house could've gone in (the latter being Alan himself and Elizabeth). And Henderson hadn't even planned to stay in the practice after hours at first, so how did the murderer know where to find their victim? Alan tries to poke around in town to see what he can find, but people are very reluctant to help as everyone seems to hate Elizabeth and even after she's attacked, the local police detective Munro (a friend of Alan) seems more inclined to believe the attack on Elizabeth was fake than that there's something bigger developing. But as the story goes on, we learn that Henderson had more than a few secrets and it's certainly not only his wife who might have wanted him dead.

What Devine does really well is playing the whodunnit game to is fullest with a very limited cast. The focus of suspicion goes from one character to another, and as the story develops, it'll seem like any one of them could've had a reason or an opportunity to kill Henderson, but this is done without making it feel like the game is too open. A mystery novel where it seems anyone could've done it is not interesting, as basically all bets are off until some kind of decisive clue appears at the end of the story which points arbitrarily at one character. In Doctors Also Die, suspicion keeps shifting between characters because new information is learned that seems to cross off one character and perhaps implicate another, only for more information to pop up that changes things. It's the flow of new, relevant data, that keeps this whodunnit plot running, which makes it an entertaining read. And it's at the end where you really see how skilfull Devine's plotting was, as he uses this controlled flow of information throughout this novel to cleverly divert your suspicion away from the culprit. In hindsight, Devine' at times very brazenly offers information that allows you to guess who the killer is even in the earliest stages of the book, but he weaves such a carefully web of how the information is presented to the reader, it's easy to be fooled by him. I think an attentive reader could very well figure the thing out early on if they just happen to see the 'correct shape', but I have to admit I was fooled. Doctors Also Die may not have some brillant locked room murder or a grand deduction scene where everything comes together, but it's a good example of using the storytelling and the careful plotting of how information reaches the reader to create a capable whodunnit.

Your mileage may vary on the protagonist though. The story is also very much focused on Alan's love life as he's goes back and forth between the attractive Elizabeth and his fiancée Joan. Elizabeth has obviously been interested in Alan even before Henderson's death and it's not like Alan really rejected her. Meanwhile, Joan and her family at first appear very supportive of Alan, but as the novel goes on, we find they all can be rather ugly beneath their masks, as they reveal more and more of their abnormal, collective dislike of Elizabeth. The wavering Alan, who wants to help Elizabeth but also stay on the good side of his fiancée and the rest of town, makes for a frustrating protagonist at times, but at least this part of the story is also used to make the mystery plot more interesting, with information reaching Alan (and the reader) more difficultly because of the slowly changing town sentiment regarding himself.

Doctors Also Die was D.M. Devine's second novel, but it has certainly made me interested in the rest of his work. Doctors Also Die is a whodunnit that does a surprisingly great job at creating an amusing mystery story with a limited cast and setting thanks to a very cleverly plotted story structure, which allows Devine to keep pointing the finger of accussation at others in a natural manner and still present a conclusion that feels satisfying for indeed, all the clues had been fairly shown and you really should have seen it coming. I'm definitely going to read more of Devine in the future.

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