Book Reviews

Book Review: Death on the Downbeat by Sebastian Farr

This delightful classic crime novel is unusual for being told wholly through letters and cuttings!

Book: Death on the Downbeat by Sebastian Farr

Publication date: 10th September 2022 (originally published 1941)

Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by British Library Publishing. All opinions my own.

Content warnings: violence, injury, death and murder, suicide; gun violence.

As a rousing Strauss piece is reaching its crescendo in Maningpool Civic Hall, the talented yet obnoxious conductor Sir Noel Grampian is shot dead in full view of the Municipal Orchestra and the audience. It was no secret that he had many enemies – musicians and music critics among them – but to be killed in mid flow suggests an act of the coldest calculation. Told through the letters and documents sent by D.I. Alan Hope to his wife as he puzzles through the dauntingly vast pool of suspects and scant physical evidence in the case, this is an innovative and playful mystery underscored by the author’s extensive experience of the highly-strung world of music professionals. First published in 1941, this new edition returns Farr’s only crime novel to print to receive its long-deserved encore.

This is a very short book – barely over 200 pages – but it packs a very fun little mystery into that small space. I found the epistolary format really charming, as not only do we get DI Alan Hope’s explanation of events during the investigation, but also some moments of insight into his home life, which adds a nice extra layer to the character. Hope is sending these letters to his brilliant wife, both because he wants her help with the case and because he misses her as the investigation drags on, and though she never appears on page except as the addressee, you get a real sense that he has a life outside of his job, which is fun. I also loved that the format gave him the space to comment rather informally, and often with a lot of humour, on the people and happenings around him. He’s a very human-feeling detective, and it helps the story to feel very cosy.

The letters themselves are mostly short, but they come thick and fast – it’s not just Hope’s letters to his wife that make up the bulk of the narrative, but also newspaper clippings, witness statements from the members of the orchestra, and at one point a copy of the musical score from the night of the murder! If I were the kind of person who liked to try to solve a mystery ahead of the big reveal, I think I might have found the constant flow of tidbits of information and new names a bit frustrating – it certainly seems as though there’s no way to keep track of everything without one of those string-and-pin boards. However, as someone who loves the Sherlock Holmes style ‘ta-da’, where everything is revealed and then you get your evidence, this worked really well for me, and the explanation is a lovely juicy one.

The musical parts of the story were more window-dressing than clues to me, as someone unfamiliar with the workings of an orchestra, but I think everything was explained well enough (with diagrams, even) to work out what was happening where. That being said, I think artistic, theatrical types are easily recognisable characters no matter what their specific performance focus, and I loved seeing the hints of simmering rivalries and resentments between them – particularly in the witness statements, you get a fantastic series of glimpses into a whole lot of fun characters in just a few short paragraphs each. It’s really economical and effective character work.

One of the most unique mysteries I’ve read in this Crime Classics series – it’s such a shame this was the author’s only mystery novel, as I think DI Hope and his wife could have been the anchors for a great series! Four out of five cats.

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