Sometimes when someone unearths a forgotten writer and attracts the attention of eager publishers looking for unique material to reprint we as readers not only get new easy to obtain editions of out of print books we get new books never before published. Such is the case with Duck Season Death, originally written in the mid-1950s by Australian mystery writer June Wright but foolishly rejected by her publisher Hutchinson for being too old-fashioned and formulaic. Odd thing is the publisher’s reading committee members’ harsh comments praised the writing and humor in the book while summarily condemning Wright for writing what amounts to a rather clever murder mystery. One wonders what they expected a mystery writer to write. In any case, Duck Season Death is now published for the first time in this handsome trade paperback edition with an introduction by Derham Groves, Australian architect professor and crime fiction devotee. Groves re-discovered Wright’s mystery novels several years ago and helped bring her back out of obscurity into the light for an exhibit called “Murderous Melbourne.” S. H. Courtier about whom I have written enthusiastically was also featured in the exhibit.
Duck Season Death is, as its title suggests, a mystery with a hunting background. It might also be thought of as both a homage and send-up of the standard country house whodunnit. On the surface it does seem to be formulaic with its detestable murder victim, Athol Sefton, publisher of a highbrow literary magazine and an assortment of suspects all of whom hate him for one reason or another providing us with a variety of motives for the murder. The local authorities seem to want to dismiss his death as a hunting accident until Sefton’s nephew Charles Carmichael points out that his uncle was shot with a rifle and all the hunters shooting ducks were armed with shotguns. It doesn’t help that there are multiple rifles matching the caliber bullet found in Uncle Athol’s body and that everyone at the Duck and Dog Inn is a crackshot with firearms.
But Wright does something clever and a bit irritating at the same time. She makes Charles a book reviewer who has spent his entire journalistic career writing about detective novels for a special column in his uncle’s magazine. His fanciful ideas are scoffed at by the local doctor, the lazy policeman and later a visiting investigator looking into another suspicious death. He is constantly being told by the law that he has read too much fiction and that a real murder is nothing like those he finds on the printed page. Charles becomes increasingly exasperated with these dismissals and demands that everyone look at the evidence. Murder is obvious, he practically screams at them. Actually he does scream a couple of times. All the talk about book murders versus real life killing gets to be a little too much even though it is clear that Wright intends it for comic effect. By the time we get to page 156 there is this exchange between the two detectives:
“And you’re hoping to trace the call?” asked McGrath sadly. “I wish you luck my boy. I’ve only known that stunt to come off in books.”
“Oh shut up about books!” snapped Charles.
Please do! I said smiling to myself. But I kept reading all the way to the somewhat surprising finale.
There is some darn good detection in this novel encompassing old standbys like muddy boots and ballistics wizardry to highly technical forensic evidence, at least for the 1950s. Mixed into the puzzling murder on the lake is a questionable natural death of Athol’s wife, a plethora of family secrets, and some wild accusations that reminded me of the novels of Christianna Brand. Wright manages to pull off some fine character work, especially in the sardonic owner of the hunting lodge Ellis Bryce. She shows a healthy sense of humor sprinkled throughout the mayhem and throws in a nod or two to Great Detectives of mysterydom. In fact, the solution is predicated on one of the most well known rules in detective fiction. The third section is entitled “The Impossible Remainder” and it is only when Charles is reminded of the famous Holmesian maxim “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable must be the truth.” that he finally can assemble the clues and come up his nearly flawless solution. But Wright has one last trick up her sleeve. One twist too many perhaps and not as much of a surprise to this reader, but an admirable job all the same.
Soon all seven of June Wright’s mystery novels will be reprinted by Dark Passage Books, an imprint of Verse Chorus Press. Currently three of her books are available in smart looking trade paperback editions. In addition to Duck Season Death, there is Murder at the Telephone Exchange (1948), Wright’s debut mystery novel, also with an introduction by Groves and So Bad a Death (1950) with an introduction by Lucy Sussex. All three are available through the usual online booksellers or can be ordered from your own local bookstore. Why not introduce yourself to yet another impressive Australian writer of the late Golden Age of Detective Fiction?
Reading Challenge update: Golden Age card, space O3 – “Animal in title”