Thursday, May 14, 2020

Charles Forsyte's Murder with Minarets

Charles Forsyte was the pseudonym used by British diplomat Gordon Philo and his wife Vicky for a handful of mystery thrillers beginning with Diplomatic Death in 1961. Not surprisingly several of their books have a diplomatic background, including Murder with Minarets (published in 1968).

Gordon Philo had at one time been posted to Istanbul so it’s no great surprise that they chose Turkey as a setting for Murder with Minarets. Istanbul has been used as a setting for countless spy thrillers and spy movies. It’s just one of those cities that seems ideally suited for the thriller genre. What is unusual is that the authors chose not to set this novel in Istanbul but in the capital, Ankara. Offhand I can’t think of any thrillers that have used Ankara as a setting. But they clearly wanted the events of the novel to take place against the background of the British Embassy in Turkey so Ankara had to be the choice. It doesn’t have the romance of Istanbul but it ended up suiting their purposes. It’s the Embassy staff that is the focus, not the city.

Given that Gordon Philo had an intelligence as well as a diplomatic background what is more surprising is that this is more of a mystery rather than a thriller. In fact it’s a mystery in the golden age mould. Very much so. This is a very old-fashioned book. It could have been written in the 1930s rather than the 1960s. That’s what gives it its charm. The only thing that really marks it as a post-war book is a certain atmosphere of austerity. The characters are low- and mid-level diplomats and they’re by no means rich. They have to live on a tight budget.

Many of the key characters live in the same block of flats in Ankara. The building is used to house Embassy staff but it’s not actually an Embassy building. This is an important point. Had the murders occurred in an Embassy building they would have technically taken place on British soil and while the Turkish police would have been notified as a matter of courtesy they would have had no jurisdiction. But the murders take place on Turkish soil so the Turkish police are very much involved which adds uncomfortable complications. Inspector Zühtü is a very decent fellow, well-disposed towards the British and an honest and competent officer but he is a cop and being a cop he intends to conduct a proper and thorough investigation. Jan Duquesne decides that it would be better if they solved the murders themselves. In fact she decides it would be better if she solved them. So this is a classic golden age tale featuring an amateur detective. Jan however is not just another elderly spinster amateur detective. She is young, attractive and happily married.

As for the plot, it starts with Magda Tranter dying of a heart attack in the bathtub. This brings to an end her stormy marriage with Paul Tranter, a First Secretary at the Embassy. The Tranters live on the same floor as Tom and Barbara Hadley and the Hadleys will be in the thick of things. As will Charles and Laura O’Halloran on the floor below and Peter Milner-Browne, a young acid-tongued Second Secretary living on the floor above. Also in the picture are Stephen and Jan Duquesne, who live elsewhere. These are all members of the Embassy staff and their wives. Rounding off the cast of characters are a number of non-diplomats - second-rate violinist (but first-rate womaniser) Francis Allardyce and his painter wife Doune, Peter Milner-Browne’s archaeologist elder brother Christopher and Jan Duquesne’s kid sister Gina (staying with Jan while recovering from a broken heart).

The second death seems like an obvious case of accidental death (electrocution due to faulty wiring). But two sudden deaths within two weeks among the small close-knit British diplomatic community is just a bit too much of a coincidence for anyone to swallow.

And there are indications that may point towards motives for murder. There’s the likelihood of blackmail and there’s adultery. Almost any of the cast of characters mentioned above could conceivably be mixed up in such things.

There are ingenious murder methods and some pretty neat plot twists, and plenty of red herrings. The setting is mostly useful in that it provides a perfect setup for a classic golden age murder mystery with a dozen or so characters one of whom must be the murderer (there are circumstances that make it quite clear than no outsider could have been involved). There is one nice exotic touch, a key scene that takes place in a ruined castle on the coast.

It’s all fairly genteel. There’s no bad language, not much violence and not much sex (although there are implied sexual shenanigans). As I said earlier the feel is very much of the golden age rather than the 1960s. But it’s thoroughly enjoyable with a good mystery plot, a few touches of suspense and just the tiniest hint of International intrigue. Highly recommended.

1 comment:

  1. I've not read Murder with Minarets, but Diplomatic Death and Diving Death also were more typical of the 1930s rather than the 1960s. Charles Forsyte, Kip Chase and John Sladek were part of that second (or third) lost generation of Golden Age mystery writers who vanished as quickly as they appeared after the 1950s. What could have been...