Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Dorothy L. Sayers and Valentine Williams: Closing the Gate on The Portcullis Room (1934)

A tale of the right sort is "The Portcullis Room," full of romance and colour and movement, with the wild water racing though the Flow and the dark castle steeped in blood-stained legend, and no wearisome police with their finger-prints and official interrogatories.  Mr. Valentine Williams does this kind of thing as well as it can be done, giving us lively characters, brisk dialogue, good English, and a vivid local background.

--Dorothy L. Sayers, The Sunday Times

full of romance and 
colour and movement
It's hard to add to the inimitable Dorothy L., brilliant critic that she is, and I already had most of my say on this novel last Friday (see Loch Death), but I will say I do agree with Sayers most emphatically.   

The Portcullis Room is a fine, colorful mystery tale, and it offers a fairly-clued puzzle (though some data comes late in the day), as well as a true-blue amateur detective (just who this person will turn out to be is not immediately apparent).

The puzzle is not of Christie-level cleverness, to be sure, but it is an engaging one and the final two chapters are quite suspenseful (this book would film splendidly).

So, good job, Mr. Williams!

I would be remiss by failing to report that The Portcullis Room is not a fantastically rare old mystery as old mysteries go.  Affordable copies can be found on the used book sites.  Williams was quite popular in the English-speaking world on both sides of the Atlantic (in England he was published by the redoubtable Hodder & Stoughton), and he was published all over Continental Europe and in Japan as well, so this is not surprising.

One final, amusing note in regard to Sayers' review of The Portcullis Room.  It seems Sayers couldn't forbear pronouncing that "a West Highland castle, all hip-baths and candle-light, could not possibly provide cracked ice for cocktails," as occurs in the novel.

It seems that Dorothy L. Sayers fell down
on her knowledge of sinister oubliettes
The next week Sayers, having been oh-so promptly corrected by a correspondent (oh! those pesky Times readers and their letters!) graciously issued a retraction on the matter of the cracked ice for cocktails: 

Ice can be obtained in Hebridean castles.  It is cut in the winter from mountain loch or tarn and stored underground or in a "sinister oubliette" somewhere on the estate.

Sayers saw the fictional possibilities of this immediately and added appreciatively that a "new lurking-place for a corpse is a boon indeed for the hardworked detective writer."

Which just goes to show that (1) even the very best of us can make mistakes and (2) one needs to stay informed about sinister oubliettes.

Coming soon: one more Life of Crime, this time the woman known as Anthony Gilbert.  To be followed by Bill Pronzini, Minette Walters, Margery Allingham and more!

There's just no rest for a passing tramp.