Death on the Downbeat by Sebastian Farr – Review

Death on the Downbeat by Sebastian Farr logo

By Sarah Morgan

What do Les Liaisons dangereuses, Dracula, Carrie and Bridget Jones’s Diary have in common?

Top marks go to anyone who answers “they’re all examples of epistolary novels”, ie they tell their stories via a series of letters and/or articles.

Another title to add to that list is Death on the Downbeat by Sebastian Farr, a welcome entry in the British Library’s wonderful, ever-growing Crime Classics collection, which aims to dust down forgotten titles and introduce them to a new audience.

Subtitled ‘An Orchestral Fantasy of Detection’, it is not the only crime novel to adopt the format – Wilkie Collins’ landmark tome The Moonstone and Dorothy L Sayers and Robert Eustace’s collaborative The Documents in the Case are a couple more that readers may want to check out.

The letter writer in Farr’s case is DI Alan Hope, who volunteers to tackle the investigation into the death of Sir Noel Grampian, the widely disliked conductor of the Maningpool Municipal Orchestra – he was shot during a particularly rousing moment in a performance of Strauss’s Heldenleben. Not only are there hundreds of eye-witnesses, there are hundreds of suspects too, although the audience is quickly ruled out when it becomes clear that the shot could not have come from their direction.

“Out of the blue”

Death on the Downbeat by Sebastian Farr coverSo Hope concentrates on the musicians, and he sends home his musings on the case, as well as newspaper reports and statements from possible witnesses, to his wife, Julia, who’s stuck at home in London with the kids, but nevertheless provides her husband with an excellent sounding board.

The story is certainly puzzling; I don’t think I’m alone in gaining a great deal of enjoyment in trying to work out whodunit while reading crime novels, but here I found it impossible to form any kind of opinion. Even after the truth is revealed, although the explanation made sense, it came completely out of the blue – whether that would bother you or not probably depends on how much you pride yourself in solving the case. Some may, of course, prefer to be surprised by the outcome.

The book offers insights into the often highly strung (no pun intended) world of the orchestra too, where the personalities of performers clash – but then you might expect that from the author; Farr was the pseudonym of Eric Walter Blom, a Swiss-born, British-naturalised music lexicographer, critic and writer.

As is always the case in the Crime Classic series, author and expert Martin Edwards provides an informative introduction to the novel, which was first published in 1941 but has been out of print ever since. How delightful that it’s getting an encore more than 80 years later.

‘Death on the Downbeat’ by Sebastian Farr is published by the British Library, £9.99 paperback


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