Margot Bennett (1912-1980) worked as an advertising copywriter, as a nurse and translator during the Spanish Civil War, and as a television scriptwriter. She wrote literary fiction, crime fiction, and science fiction. Compared to her Golden Age contemporaries, her output was relatively small: only seven mysteries. The last two were nominated for awards and the last one received the Crossed Red Herrings award, now the Golden Dagger award, in 1958 for best mystery of the year from the Crime Writers’ Association. Her diminutive output nowise affected her popularity, which was considerable, as her books were translated into multiple languages.
Away Went the Little Fish (Nichols, 1946) is her second mystery featuring Captain John Davies. Davies is still in the army more than year after the war ended, his demobilization papers having been misplaced. He’s assigned to a backwater post 40 miles away from London He dislikes the rooming house where he finds living quarters and he dislikes his new colleagues and he dislikes the town of Wetherfold. A colleague Raphael Sands, who lives apart from his wife, also has a room in the same house but Davies rarely sees him, as Sands has a lucrative sideline in writing potboilers while he is supposed to be working for the British Civil Service.
England after the war was still suffering from severe shortages in food and basic necessities so an estate sale attracted far more attention in the town than it would have in more prosperous times. Even Davies showed up, more to have something to do than to buy anything. When a large chest at the sale was flung open for display, bystanders were horrified to see the body of Sands inside. Sands has unquestionably been murdered.
Davies decides to investigate, citing the success of his first case, described in Time to Change Hats (1945). The police decline his help, repeatedly, which does not impede him in the least. Davies begins interviewing everyone associated with Sands. When he meets Sands’ estranged wife, he immediately falls in love with her. From there the story begins to meander into multiple unrelated story threads. The actual mystery, essentially a locked room puzzle, could have been relayed in about half as many pages as the book occupies.
The characters are memorable. The owner of the house where Davies rents a room has a school-age daughter who is one of the most obnoxious children I’ve ever seen in the pages of fiction. She monitors the household’s use of electricity, she walks into Davies’s bedroom without asking, and she keeps minnows in the sink of the spare bathroom. Her mother is consumed with anxiety about finding food amid the rampant shortages; it occupies almost all of her waking thoughts. Then there’s the resident mad scientist who is inventing something he doesn’t talk about. His neighbors reported him for collaboration during the war but the authorities could find no basis for arresting him. Eccentricity is, so far, not a crime.
Finely plotted, well written with sardonic humor, but long and rambling.