A Coat of Varnish, by C.P. Snow, New York: Scribners, 1979, 328 pp., $10.95.
When one of their number is found murdered, the socially prominent Londoners in this mystery uphold a decorum that is considerably denser than varnish. Piercing it is as tough for the author as for the detectives. The setting is Belgravia, a neighborhood of deceptively plain row houses inhabited by the titled elite. They live conservatively, though, and reclusively except for infrequent parties where the guards are let down and gossip flows. Getting to the heart of such people while still preserving the sedate character of their lives was the challenge the late C.P. Snow set for himself. In 328 close-packed pages, he probed from an awkward variety of angles.
As if to make things hard for himself, he chooses as a guide to this closed circle a semiretired espionage functionary with a calculatedly veiled past. Humphrey Leigh lets us know he hates punks, loves another man's wife, and foresees doom for the upper class—but not much else. His background, however, makes him a natural ally of Briers, a refreshingly breezy chief investigator. Together they plot the whereabouts of Leigh's neighbors on the hot July night when Lady Ashbrook was killed.
Snow's self-imposed handicaps make for faltering center sections after the discovery of the body and before the exposure of the killer. Leigh's friendship with Briers entitles him to just so much inside information. The remainder, Snow had to disclose in portrayals of the Belgravia suspects: a transplanted American Jew, a rich divorcee, a Parliamentarian, a doctor. These lead nowhere. Lady Ashbrook was eccentric but not hateful; disliked but not despised. Her money arrived regularly from a secret trust, but in unenticingly small quantities. It is plain early on that Snow's well-mannered types lack motives for murder. In the end, detailed examination of their lives seems pointless, however fine the writing by this veteran of British letters.
The murder itself is violent—strangulation and hammer blows—and it is followed up with a trip to the dissection room for a coroner's look at the corpse. These forced and tasteless scenes are supposed to offset the long succeeding calm. They do not.
Paul Hornak is a free-lance writer.