Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

I loved Raymond Postgate’s Verdict of Twelve, but it has taken me a few years to get around to reading his other novel available as a British Library Crime Classic, Somebody at the Door. I wish I’d found time to read it sooner, as it’s another one I really enjoyed – with one or two reservations.

One evening in the winter of 1942, Councillor Henry Grayling travels home from London by train, bringing with him a large sum of money – the wages for the workers of the Barrow and Furness Chemistry and Drugs Company, which he is planning to distribute the next day. By the time he reaches his own front door, he has become seriously ill and dies later that night from what appears to be mustard gas poisoning. The money has disappeared, but was that the motive for his murder or could there be another reason? Suspicion falls on the other passengers who had shared his train carriage that evening and it is up to Inspector Holly to decide which of them did it and why.

This novel has a very similar structure to Verdict of Twelve. In that book, Postgate tells the stories of the twelve people who are serving on the jury for a murder trial, showing the effects of their backgrounds, experiences and prejudices on their decision-making. In Somebody at the Door, he explores the stories of the people on the train and how their paths had crossed with Grayling’s, giving them the motive and the opportunity to commit the crime. The book feels more like a collection of short stories than a conventional crime novel – although we do return briefly to Holly’s investigations now and then, the focus is much more on getting to know the personal history of each suspect rather than on watching the detective solve the mystery.

Some of the stories are very compelling in their own right, even if most of what we are told has very little relevance to the overall plot. I particularly liked the first one, about a young man who works for the Barrow and Furness Company and gets himself involved with a blackmailer, and the third one, which follows an attempt to help a refugee escape from Nazi Germany. The final story, however, about two people having an affair, didn’t interest me much at all – and unfortunately, this was one of the longest stories. This did spoil the book for me slightly, but after this final tale comes to an end we return to the Grayling murder again and things are wrapped up nicely.

I think what I liked best about this novel was the setting. Postgate writes about life in wartime Britain as only someone can who is actually living through it themselves (the book was published in 1943). Some of the characters’ stories are related directly to the war, such as the one about the refugee and another about a Corporal in the Home Guard, and the war is a constant presence in the novel as a whole, with references to bombing raids and the blackout.

I preferred Verdict of Twelve and would recommend starting with that one if you’re new to Raymond Postgate, but both books are entertaining and interesting reads as long as you don’t go into them expecting a traditional detective novel.

10 thoughts on “Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate

  1. Cyberkitten says:

    I’m a social historian at heart so one of the things I enjoy most from older novels is the often casually unintentional insights we are given into life around the time of publication. Things that the author takes for granted are added to give the story depth and authenticity to the readership of the day but, decades or centuries later, end up giving troves of useful social and cultural data to future readers. I do like that!

    I’m a big fan of the British Library Crime Classic publications. It’s a shame when older books are ‘lost’ and out of print so I love it when a publishing house or organisation bring them back out. I’ve only read one of the set so far (Mystery in White – A Christmas Crime Story by J Jefferson Farjeon) but picked up nine more from an independent bookshop last week (less than half price), so I’ll be hoping to schedule at least a few of those this year. I also totally love the covers. Brilliant!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, that’s one of the things I love about reading older books too. You’ve described it perfectly!

      I hope you enjoy working your way through the BLCC books you’ve collected. Mystery in White is one I haven’t read yet – maybe this Christmas!

  2. Lark says:

    Using the twelve jurors, or the different people on the train, to tell the story is a very interesting way to write a murder mystery. Makes me want to check out both of Postgate’s books. 🙂

  3. FictionFan says:

    Ha, your reaction to this was almost identical to mine! I loved some of the stories, but that one at the end was so dull and so long! Like you, though, I enjoyed the book very much overall. Pity he wasn’t more prolific!

    • Helen says:

      That final story was so disappointing after enjoying the others so much, particularly the refugee one. Yes, it’s a shame he didn’t write more books – there only seem to be a few others, mainly non-fiction.

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