Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Barry's Reviews: "Murder in the Hellfire Club"

Murder in the Hellfire Club (1978) by Donald Zochert
reviewed by Barry Ergang

Devoted mystery fans, especially those who treasure locked-room tales, should make every effort to avoid wasting time on this novel.

The time of the story is 1757, and Benjamin Franklin goes to England to conduct some business with the Penn family concerning the colony of Pennsylvania. In London, he's sought out by Francis Dashwood, founder and leader of the Hellfire Club, notorious for its licentious conclaves. John Raleigh, a porter at the Vulture Tavern and a friend of Dashwood's, has been found dead in a locked room. There are no signs of violence on his body, but Franklin suspects he was murdered. Dashwood has received a bizarre poem that he and Franklin regard as a threat to all of the Club's members.

Two more murders occur before Franklin reveals the culprit and the motive behind the crimes.

If you find my synopsis brief and bland, it's because to tell anything more would be to tell the entire story. Because Murder in the Hellfire Club is scarcely more than a short story poorly padded to novel-length—often annoyingly so, at that.

The narrative is written in a deliberately "antiquated" style, no doubt to "evoke the period," and peppered with the author's attempts at aphorisms. He spends more time describing Franklin's trips, by carriage or on foot, through London than he spends on the story itself. Characters—of which there are many—are delineated more by physical descriptions and authorial comments than by their words and actions. Few become figures of blood and bone, and then pallidly. The dialogue is choppy and frequently incoherent. The murder method—if it weren't already revealed on the dust jacket—is one any experienced mystery reader will guess early on, even if s/he doesn't figure out the details of the locked-room and other murderous situations.

As the detective, Franklin does a lot of brooding interspersed with bouts of self-deprivation or gluttony. He does very little actual investigating.

This is the worst mystery I've encountered since I read Mignon G Eberhart's Next of Kin several years ago. It's time to cleanse my peruser's palate by rereading some Richard S Prather.

For more about the Golden Age of Detection and on this book in particular, follow the link to:

Barry Ergang © 2007

Currently the Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine and First Senior Editor of Mysterical-E, winner of the Short Mystery Fiction Society’s 2007 Derringer Award in the Flash Fiction category, Barry Ergang’s written work has appeared in numerous publications, print and electronic. For links to material available online, see Barry’s webpages

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