Murder’s a Swine (1943) – Nap Lombard

  • Post comments:1 Comment

One night early in the Second World War, Agnes Kinghof finds a body outside her block of flats, and her neighbour is disturbed by the appearance of a pig’s head at her top-floor window. A mysterious person calling themself the “Pig-sticker” claims credit for both, and what’s worse, the killer appears to be living within the block of flats. Agnes and her husband Andrew decide it would be a lot of fun to investigate, and they have to face down a prank war, cursed coincidences, and fascists before they can trap the culprit.

Murder’s A Swine introduces its snappy, bantering humour right out of the gate. The atmospheric opening is punctured as soon as our main character delivers this anecdote:

“My aunt, General Sidebotham, used to say–“
“Your aunt’s a General?” Clem exclaimed, bewildered.
“Salvation Army–used to say that wars were wars when she was a young girl, and hadn’t been the same since; but then, she was at Agincourt.”

The majority of the humour comes from the main characters, Agnes and Andrew Kinghof. They play the perpetual wise-guys, but most of the rest of the cast is eccentric in some way and also provide a lot of humour. Mr and Mrs Kinghof’s bantering is very reminiscent of The Thin Man, and in fact there’s a quick reference to Myrna Loy and William Powell. As with Nick and Nora, the female of the pair is the more eccentric and the man is a bit more sensible; however Agnes gets to do a lot more detection than Nora Charles and she comes out as the main character overall. The duo’s relationship is a joy to read on the page – really affectionate and occasionally heartfelt while never feeling too good to be true. I noticed that when Agnes is away from Andrew there’s often a sense of tension; his return often means the return of safety.
Perhaps this well-written relationship is because the writers were a husband and wife team themselves. Nap Lombard was in reality the joint pseudonym of Pamela Hansford Johnson and Gordon Neil Stewart. Both of them were air-raid wardens at the beginning of the war and must have used their experiences when writing this book.

It’s not all hijinks and banter. The tone often takes sudden and effective swerves. Throughout the book, a funny scene is followed by scenes of the villain, the Pig-sticker, taunting, attacking, or killing with seemingly no-one able to stop them. These scenes are surprisingly chilling given that the book is primarily a comedy.
Use of childish pranks and things like a Punch-and-Judy show become sinister when accompanied by the promise of death.

Classic murder mysteries set during WW2 are not that uncommon – after all, in my opinion the Golden Age of Detective Fiction lasts until about 1950. Most London-set WW2 mysteries make full use of the drama of a falling bomb, but Murder’s a Swine distinguishes itself by being set before there were any bombings. This was the “Phoney War”, or “Sitzkrieg” as the book itself calls it. England and Germany were at war but large-scale hostilities hadn’t yet started. Rationing had been implemented but seems to have been fairly lax. The official propaganda and instruction must have seemed strange at the time, and in Murder’s A Swine it often comes off as farcical, with the tenants of Stewart’s Court and their “fire meetings” which inevitably trail off into frustration.
There are a few hints of future darkness towards the end as Agnes thinks of what the children living in the area will have to cope with. Since it was published in 1943 the authors would have known what was to come when the bombing started – yet they wouldn’t have known when the war would end.
This unusual setting is a big strength of the book. It’s packed with all kinds of references to daily life at the time – fire protection methods, food, fashion, entertainment, jokes… so many references that I knew I was missing out on. Sometimes I do look up the odd bit of culture I don’t understand, but I was a bit overwhelmed.

The mystery itself is not quite a normal “whodunnit”. Instead it’s something I’m going to call a “hidden role” mystery. Fairly early on, the police and amateurs land on a likely culprit. But this person is probably disguised as another member of the cast, so there’s still a wide range of suspects. The solution to this is guessable – I came close a few times – but the focus of the plot is really exciting incidents and twists. This is not the place to come to for sober detection, or indeed sober detectives. Agnes and Andrew (particularly Agnes) always manage to put themselves into the path of most excitement, in a very thrillerish way. She ends up hiding out with potential victims, shadowing suspects, and getting assaulted, enjoying herself all the while. The light-hearted approach was initially appealing, but after a while the Kinghof’s attempts to investigate seemed to be causing more harm than they prevented, and I started to lose sympathy with them.

The characters in this book should have paid attention to the posters…

Unfortunately the book fell apart a bit at the ending. Though the solution worked OK, the capture of the culprit strained credulity. While the book is a comedy, it’s mostly character based humour and banter, but the ending takes things into more Scooby-Doo territory! It was a few too many levels of ridiculousness over the tone of the rest of the book. I’m also starting to get tired of a particular ending trope, which I’ll hide in rot13 though it’s not really a spoiler: gur xvyyre’f rkcbfvgbel pbasrffvba yrggre. The mess is further compounded by an epilogue which is just a smugly-delivered joke that makes a political point (that I happen to disagree with). It left a sour taste after a book that had been extremely enjoyable up to that point.

Despite not quite sticking the landing, this book was great fun to read, with well-written prose, enjoyable characters, and great dialogue. Anyone interested in the WW2 setting should pay special attention, since it provides such a detailed picture of a very particular time. This is an excellent entry in the particular niche of comic crime.
The detecting duo of Agnes and Andrew (and Andrew’s uncle Lord Pig) actually made their first appearance in Tidy Death in 1940, which is long out of print and seems impossible to find. Murder’s a Swine actually spoils the previous book’s solution! But I would love to see it republished, since I enjoyed this one so much.

There is one incident in the book that was never explained. I’ll rot13 it as it’s a spoiler:
Ubj jnf gur yrggre qryvirerq qhevat gur svefg Sver Ceriragvba zrrgvat? Gur npghny phycevg frrzrq svezyl ehyrq bhg, naq V jnf n ovg naablrq fvapr guvf vf jung chg zr bss fhfcrpgvat gurz.
Has anyone figured this out?

Other opinions:

Beneath the Stains of Time
Clothes in Books
Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings
Northern Reader

This Post Has One Comment

Leave a Reply