It is the autumn of 1924 and we are in London. London has always been – and will ever be – a city of contrasts but now, six years on from the Armistice that ended The Great War, the differences between the men who survived the conflict are marked. On the streets the less fortunate are selling matches, bootlaces, carrying placards asking for work, many of them reduced to displaying mutilated limbs, less as a badge of honour, more in a desperate attempt to provoke compassion and pity. Inside the Britannia Club, however, the members are known by their former military rank and it’s ‘Major’ this, ‘Lieutenant’ that and ‘Captain’ the other.
Eric Peterkin is one such and, although he carries his rank with pride, he is just a little different, and he is viewed with some disdain by certain fellow members and simply tolerated by others. Despite generations of military Peterkins looking down from their portraits in the club rooms, Eric is what is known, in the language of the time, a half-caste. His Chinese mother has bequeathed him more than enough of the characteristics of her race for the jibe, “I suppose you served in the Chinese Labour Corps?” to become commonplace.
Having served King and Country is a prerequisite for membership of the Britannia, so eyebrows are raised when Albert Benson appears as a new member. Benson, it transpires, was a conscientious objector but redeemed himself by service as a stretcher bearer until severe wounds sent him back to ‘Blighty’. When Benson is found dead in the club’s basement, with a paper knife projecting from his neck, Eric Peterkin is drawn into investigating his murder. All roads lead back to a Sussex military hospital where Benson – and several other of the club members – were treated during the war.
Christopher Huang (right) was born and raised in Singapore where he served his two years of National Service as an Army Signaller. He moved to Canada where he studied Architecture at McGill University in Montreal. Huang currently lives in Montreal.. Judging by this, his debut novel, he also knows how to tell a story. He gives us a fascinating cast of gentleman club members, each of them worked into the narrative as a murder suspect. We have Mortimer Wolfe – “sleek, dapper and elegant, hair slicked down and gleaming like mahogany”, club President Edward Aldershott, “Tall, prematurely grey and with a habit of standing perfectly still …like a bespectacled stone lion,” and poor, haunted Patrick “Patch” Norris with his constant, desperate gaiety.
Huang writes in a style which is archaic in one sense, as he pays homage to the conventions and narrative style of books written nearly a century ago, but it is none the worse for that. He clearly has a huge empathy with the men and women who, while they may have survived the War physically more or less intact, they carry hidden scars and memories which we know, long after the event, were to stay with them until death. On more than one occasion, Huang strikes a particularly sonorous chord:
“Eric joined the sombre crowds at the Cenotaph on Whitehall for the service in remembrance of the War at eleven o’clock – the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. It began with two minutes of silence: one for the fallen and one for the survivors. After that would come wreaths and remembrances and men marching with grim salutes …boots on rain glossed pavements, artificial poppies blooming blood red on black lapels, tears in the eyes of men who never cried. But first, there were two minutes of silence. England held her breath.”
If you are a fan of the Golden Age, enjoy the challenge of a good locked room mystery and appreciate literate and thoughtful crime fiction, then A Gentleman’s Murder will not disappoint. It is published by Inkshares and will be available in paperback on 31st July.