Friday, March 14, 2014

Death on Milestone Buttress, by Glyn Carr

The thought of a mountain-climbing themed mystery has potential interest. I grew up in the hill country of western Maryland, and while we always called them "mountains" they were no real challenge to climbers. Let's be honest, they're hills. But I have some happy memories from my youth of clambering over rocks and pausing to look at views. So I'd thought I'd give this a try.

Shakespearean actor Abercrombie Lewker ("Filthy" to his friends...yes, Filthy Lewker, get the groaning overwith now...) has wrapped up a tour, and his wife is going to stay with a pregnant friend, so he decides to take off for a climbing vacation in Wales. On the way, he meets pretty Hilary Bourne, a novice climber who's seeking a break from her dreary job in the city. They're both staying at a guesthouse near Tryfan, a real mountain in what is now Snowdonia National Park. (The park was established in 1951, the same year this was published.) They share the guesthouse with an interesting family and their friends, and tension abounds. There's a glowering minister, his long-suffering wife, his repressed daughter, and some friends including a nuclear scientist and his assistants.

There's no end of interpersonal tensions and intrigue; Raymond, one of the assistants, has a roving eye and seems unpopular with the overall group. Finally, he takes Hilary on a climb, even though she'd much rather be with Michael, the other assistant. Raymond attempts to take liberties; she rebuffs his forcibly, including giving him a head butt, which I loved. But then he goes over a ridge, and she hears a yell....and when she climbs over, he's dead from an apparent fall.

But he was an experienced climber, and they're on Milestone Buttress, a part of the mountain that's easy to climb and mostly used by novices. It was drizzly that day, and some fog did come up; did he slip? Or was it...murder?

Well, of course it was. Hilary and Lewker team up to figure out who did it; she's horribly afraid Michael was responsible, and the others in the group are her friends and it pains her to think one of them may be a killer.

It's pretty entertaining, actually. Almost half the book is build-up to the murder, and you get a good idea of the tensions in the guesthouse group. And it's also a look back to attitudes of yesteryear, when membership in the British Communist Party was not all that unusual (the USSR was a threat, to be sure, but the British hadn't forgotten their alliance in defeating Hitler), and an unmarried girl losing her virginity was a catastrophe. This is also a sort of variation on the locked-room mystery, with the "locked room" being a remote physical location. Clues are fairly provided, and the mountain-climbing scenes are nicely done, as well as the overall descriptions of the mountains.

Glyn Carr was the pseudonym of author and mountaineer Showell Styles, who had already written three thrillers about Lewker in the 40s, under his own name. One supposes the earlier books were forgotten or he felt they weren't worth remembering, so he just recycled the character, with a few references to a Secret Service background, and proceeded on a new career for him as a mountaineering detective. There's 15 Carr/Lewker books in all, from 1951 to 1969

It's all good fun, and makes me want to breathe clean mountain air again. It's in print, from the good folks at Rue Morgue Press, so go check it out.

Tryfan, in all its glory. Looks like a challenge, doesn't it?

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