Tiny Carteret by H.C. “Sapper” McNeile
I recently read the old book Tiny Carteret, by Herman Cyril McNeile. (H.C. McNeile for whatever reason usually went under the pseudonym “Sapper“.) It was first published in London in 1930, and my version of the book is similarly old- I purchased it from one of my favorite stores and the best source I know of for antique books in Chicago, Green Element Resale.
So, this review is going to sound a lot more harsh than I actually am on the book. There were some faults with it, but it was a good read! I did very much enjoy it. The writing style was fast and fluid, the characters were enjoyable (if exceedingly dull-witted), and it was a thrilling story front to back. I’d recommend this book!
What I Didn’t Like
So, the downsides. Most of the characters were really just very stupid. The two most intelligent characters were the villains, but their schemes and plots were kept shrouded in mystery for much of the novel, and even when they were laid bare the main characters didn’t really have the mental capacities to deal with them in the first place. Tiny Carteret, a slow-but-strong rugby player, was supposed to be a little behind- I get that, and it was fine. But the other characters, such as Ronald Standish and Gillson, government agents, were hardly any better (perhaps this is true to life). The leading lady, Mary, was more active than I would’ve guessed for the time, but she was also still just as dull. I don’t think it was McNeile’s intention for them to all come off this way.
Then again, I’m not sure how McNeile expected the audience to take this book. We as readers are immediately told that the murders take place in locked rooms where no person can enter, with only a tiny vent or a small window available for entry. We’re also told that the victims all die of the same poison from a small scratch on their body, though the exact poison is never known. Pages later, we are introduced to the evil mastermind- with a chattering, trained pet monkey on his shoulder.
So, the monkey poisons the victims. It’s not something you have to think hard on. It’s pretty obvious. There’s a small window to get to a poison victim and the villain has a trained monkey. There is no great mystery here. I took this for granted, and followed patiently along while the characters took their sweet time figuring this out- but even in the final scenes, when Tiny is told he’s about to be murdered and left in a room with only the monkey, he approaches it playfully. I don’t know where to start with this. Ronald admits he doesn’t realize the ape connection himself until it was already near Tiny, saying it was “rather touch and go“. The book ends with something along the lines of, “Reader, were you able to figure out this mystery?” That’s when I frowned and thought, “what myster- nooo, wait, really?”
In some versions of this book, a monkey attacking a person is the front cover illustration. Literally it could be the first thing you know about this book at all.
But it’s a mystery, I guess.
Also- though this is common from many books written between 1900-1940- people seem far too easily fooled by disguises. Tiny’s best friend Ronald is able to sit across from him on the train wearing a wig and a fake beard and Tiny suspects he might be the villain. Really? It’s your best friend, dude. The villain meanwhile escapes in a crowd by wearing a monk’s hood, and Tiny sees this, assumes that no monk would ever be deceitful, and lets it go, while wondering how the villain is sly enough to slip past him. Dude, Tiny- it’s the guy in the hood. IT’S THE GUY IN THE HOOD, MAYBE LIFT UP HIS HOOD, TINY.
It Was Still A Good Book
No, really, other than these things it was a pretty good book. I enjoyed it and I’d read more by the author, gladly- I understand that McNeile has more books mostly featuring Ronald Standish and other characters instead. Good, maybe they’re smarter. I don’t know. Good book.