Tuesday, December 31, 2013

As Fit as A Flea

Murder at the Flea Club – Mathew Head

The year 1957 finds The Flea Club a hot Paris night spot. The owner-operator- chanteuse, Frenchwoman Nicole, divided the joint into a public and a members-only section. On hand for additional local color is Nicole’s piano player Tony, a man of mystery, and Bibi, a young prostitute.

The members are the narrator Hooper Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolliver”), art gallery owner and man of the world; a brittle American heiress in the hunt for a fifth husband; the nasty gigolo who’s making eyes at her. Another brassy American female makes eyes at the gigolo, and her troubled 18-year-old daughter mopes more than a young girl should. A young Italian makes eyes at the moper. The chanteuse is done in with a blunt instrument. On the case is Head’s series detective, Dr. Mary Finney. Her companion is Emily Collins.

This story isn’t more crowded than the usual country-house mystery. I had no problem keeping who’s who straight. Still, I got the feeling yet that this is an over-crowded mystery because they don’t have a lot to do except talk. And talk. And talk some more. For instance, an American “confirmed bachelor,” probably with his hand stereotypically on his hip, prattles like this:

Have you been downstairs, Hoopy? .... Well do go! I mean the place is simply fantastic, these utterly tremendous holes, right in the middle of the clubroom, and the most tremendous piles of dirt. Really quite picturesque and too too archaeological! So intellectual, is the way I feel about it, so un-Flea Club. But good, you know, really good. The Institute's been taking pictures, if you can imagine. I mean it - the Institute! Ninth century if it's a day, Professor Johnson says. Can you imagine?

This tedium is worsened by Head’s choice to narrate about half the novel as Hooper’s recounting the last couple days’ action to Dr. Mary Finney. Like the flamboyant bachelor above, the reporting seems to go on and on. Besides it’s too unbelievable that Hooper would remember conversations word for word. By the scene in which they plan to gather all the suspects in a room, I was relieved and grateful.

On the positive side, Head uses language skillfully. He’s memorable at describing sounds (“She put both hands in front of her face and made unlovely burbling sounds”) and colors (“Freddy’s face turned into shrimp-colored blubber and began to vibrate”). Better, he’s funny as when Hooper and the teenager go on a date, the girl acts abstractedly: ""I was proud to be with such a pretty girl, but if anybody tried to figure us out they must have thought either that we had had a lovers' quarrel,  or been married a little too long. Or maybe they just thought we were English."

I gather that series hero Dr. Mary Finney’s usual locale was the Congo. So maybe the writer felt wobbly away from the familiar setting. Plus, this was the last novel in the series so maybe the earlier ones are better. Head is a good enough writer that I will try an earlier book in the series if it falls in my lap. But with regards to this one, I have to warn prospective readers off.

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