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Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Murder Off Miami by Dennis Wheatley

You might remember that I reviewed the Usborne Mystery Files a couple of years ago. Around that time, I acquired two 1980s ‘facsimile’ editions of Dennis Wheatley’s 1930s interactive murder mysteries, including Murder Off Miami (1936). The concept here is that you go through the physical evidence of a crime and solve the mystery yourself. While original readers had the actual artefacts to play with, the 1986 editions are photocopies, bound in book form.

I thought that lockdown would be a pretty decent time to pull one of these out and give it a go. And on a day I should have been settling down in Chester to lay the ground for our now-postponed Golden Age of Crime conference, my spirits were low. So, I’ve just spent an enjoyable afternoon in the company of Detective Officer Kettering and a shady set of suspects, one of whom committed a murder aboard the Golden Gull Yacht, just off Miami, in 1936.

The story is pretty straightforward: a wealthy businessman has apparently committed suicide, having jumped out of his cabin window on the world’s strangest holiday cruise, at which he is a guest of his arch-nemesis in soap manufacturing. Among his fellow passengers, nearly all of whom had a motive for bumping him off, we find a litany of colourful characters including a dowager battleaxe, a forgetful bishop with a secret past, an Italian nobleman who’s not on the level, and a double-dealing Japanese government official.

This is good, escapist fun at its purest. It’s also very, very golden agey. 1936 has always felt like the archetypical golden age year, for some reason – most of the TV series Agatha Christie’s Poirot reset the action of its diverse source material to that year, and it kind of fits that Murder Off Miami was published and set in that year. We have a nice collection of photographs, handwriting samples, witness reports, and telegrams to sift through – and it is of course all contemporary 1936 stuff which is rather thrilling.

For me, the saddest part was having to break the seal on the solution. If it was a new book, it wouldn’t be a problem, but since even this reissue is older than I am, it felt rather sacrilegious. And then I was a tiny bit disappointed that, as each and every clue was explained, I’d got them all – so it was almost as if I didn’t need to check. Except that it gave me the most wonderful, childish glow of pleasure to have missed nothing. Given how much I talk about the puzzle aspect on this blog, I’m starting to think I’ve been too quick to dismiss it in the past. Sometimes, it’s absolutely the heart and fun of the thing.

This game-cum-book gets a hearty recommendation from me, especially in these times when we need to escape. I think I’ll try The Malinsay Massacre (1938) tomorrow.

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