Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Although Roderic Jeffries might not be as well-known as some other Silver Age and contemporary crime writers, he was quite prolific, with several series to his credit. Let’s take a look at Jeffries’ work today, and turn the spotlight on Mistakenly in Mallorca, the first of his Inspector Enrique Alvarez series.
John Tatham is devastated when his fiancée, Jennifer, is killed. She had been going to give evidence in a bank robbery when she was murdered, and Tatham blames the police for not keeping their promise to look after her. The farm he’s trying to work is failing, and there’s not much else keeping him in England. So, he’s persuaded to take some time away, and work out what he wants to do.
Tatham goes to Mallorca to visit his great-aunt, Elvina Woods. As they get to know each other, they develop a mutual liking. She has the reputation of being ‘mad as a hatter,’ but Tatham finds her refreshingly honest. She admires his dream of being a successful farmer, and she wants to help him. When she learns that her godfather, Geoffrey Maitland, is on the point of dying, she sees her way. She is set to inherit a large fortune from him, and she intends to give that money to Tatham. She even promises to make a new will indicating her wishes, in case she dies unexpectedly.
One night, Tatham comes back to the house he’s been sharing with his great-aunt, only to find that she’s died from a fall off her balcony. Now, he’s in a terrible situation. If her death is reported immediately, he has no way of knowing whether her benefactor has died, and so, no way of proving his claim to her money. On the other hand, if he hides the death for a few days, until he hears that Maitland has died, he gets his dream farm, and what harm will it do? So, he makes very careful plans, and hides her death for several days. When he gets the news of Maitland’s death, he goes to the police to report that Aunt Elvina has gone missing and puts his plans into action.
Inspector Enrique Alvarez takes the case and starts asking questions. Before long, Aunt Elvina’s body is found, as Tatham intended, and it looks as though she had a fall from a cliff. Alvarez is under pressure (including from his own inclination) to ‘rubber stamp’ this as an accident, which is exactly what Tatham planned. But a few things don’t exactly add up. Now, Tatham has to contend with a police detective who might very well start suspecting him of murder – a murder he didn’t commit. And the only way to prove his innocence will be to tell the truth and give up the money he’d planned for the farm.
There is an element of ‘cat and mouse’ in the novel, as both Alvarez and Tatham try to outwit each other. Part of the suspense comes from that engagement. I can say without spoiling the story, though, that the story doesn’t end with the resolution of that battle of wits. There are twists and turns to the plot that make it more than just each trying to best the other.
The story takes place mostly in Mallorca, and Jeffries places the reader there. In daily life, culture, and physical setting, the story reflects life on that island in the mid-1970s (The novel was published in 1974). There’s an especially close look at the social structure of Mallorca at that time.
One important social group is the British, who’ve either become ex-pats, or are wealthy enough to have second homes on the island. On the one hand, they add to the economy. And many of the locals have jobs that depend on British presence. On the other hand, many are contemptuous of the way things are done on Mallorca, and there are several disparaging remarks about the locals. Another social group is the group of mainland Spanish, whom we mostly see in government or Guardia Civil roles. The local police aren’t too happy about what they see as government interference from people who don’t know how things are done on the island. And then there are the local Mallorcans. Some are wealthy and successful; some are not. But all of them take pride in their island, and are only too happy to take advantage of the wealthy tourists and ex-pats who look down on them. There is some wit in the story as we hear what each group thinks of the others
Through it all moves Inspector Alvarez. Although we don’t get to meet him until almost midway through the novel, we do get to know his character, as a good portion of the story is told from his point of view (third person, past tense). He is unmarried, and lives with some cousins, although they don’t spend a lot of time together. He mourns the loss of his fiancée, Juana-Marie, but he doesn’t let that possess him. He isn’t lazy in the traditional sense of the word, but he isn’t in the least bit ambitious. Instead, he’s content to stay where he is, and not be transferred to a more demanding, more important position. He is also very pragmatic. For example, he debates with himself whether he actually wants to investigate Elvina Woods’ death as a murder. If he does, that’ll mean all sorts of paperwork, mainland people getting involved, and other bother. If he doesn’t, of course, a murder isn’t investigated. In the end, he looks into the matter, but not out of any desire to ‘win points.’
The story raises some interesting moral questions – issues I can’t really discuss for fear of spoilers. But readers who are interested in such ambivalence will appreciate that point. It’s also worth noting that this is a traditional-style story in that there’s very little violence, and very little explicit language. Readers who like their stories low on gore and profanity will appreciate that.
Mistakenly in Mallorca offers the reader a look at life on that island in the mid-1970s. It tells the story of what happens when one of its well-known citizens dies and features a detective who is as laid-back as the island is. But make no mistake: he is shrewd and intelligent. But what’s your view? Have you read Mistakenly in Mallorca? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 5 November/Tuesday, 6 November – Desert Heat – J.A. Jance
Monday, 12 November/Tuesday, 13 November – The Murder of My Aunt – Richard Hull
Monday, 19 November/Tuesday, 20 November – The Murder Wall – Mari Hannah