The Murder League by Robert L. Fish has been sitting on my shelf for so many years that I’ve long since forgotten who recommended it. In fact, I thought the novel was called FISH because when the book is filed away on the shelf, the word FISH appears at the top of the spine in large black letters while the book’s faded title is in blue small letters underneath the author’s name like this:
So, I was glancing across my all-t00 crowded shelves, wondering what to read next when I saw FISH and wondered what on earth I had a book about FISH on my shelf for, so I pulled it out and saw that the title was actually The Murder League and decided, since it was in my hand, that I might as well read it.
The Murder League asks what happens to elderly mystery writers when no one wants to read their books anymore. Has-been authors Clifford Simpson, Tim Briggs, and William Billy-Boy Carruthers were popular in their day, but their novels are now out of vogue. In fact they were once so popular and innovative, that they established the Mystery Authors’ Club in London:
“In those long-gone days of a quieter London, it had peered over the low gables of the Amberford residence across Pomfret Street, to give a pleasant view of Swan’s Park, with its soft greenery, its beveled roughstone walls, and the relatively peaceful sight of nursemaids pushing perambulators or seated suspiciously watching their well-behaved charges.”
But things have changed–and not for the better. The pleasant view is long gone, and Simpson, Briggs and Carruthers are now elderly and impoverished. No one reads their books anymore, and they seem to have fossilized when it comes to creativity. Indeed other members of the MysteryAuthors’ Club don’t recall the founders’ long-lost fame, and the newer members consider the founders to be an embarrassment more than anything else. Some younger writers think that Simpson, Briggs, and Carruthers shouldn’t be “tolerated” since they no longer publish, but the club secretary, Potter thinks that on the whole the elderly trio are “harmless” and that they should be left in peace.
One day, during a conversation on the decline of standards in the mystery genre, Carruthers declares that he has a scheme that will pull them from “the verge of genteel starvation,” and he proposes that the three men combine forces to conduct murder-for-hire. He theorizes that since they are “experts in the field of inventing foolproof means of eliminating people,” that they should put that talent up for sale by murdering people for one thousand pounds a head. Simpson, Carruthers and Briggs who are bored and tired of being considered useless place an advertisement in the Times.
Obviously killing real people is a lot more difficult than bumping off fictional characters, but the three founding members of the newly-formed Murder League take to their profession with gusto–and in some instances, they show a little too much enthusiasm, but then after all, Briggs is desperate to buy a new set of false teeth with his ill-gotten gains.
The book’s best character is Sir Percival Pugh:
“The finest criminal lawyer in all of England. He had never lost a case. His legal skills were legendary. He had once defended a hit-and-run driver who had passed not only an electrical stop signal but also a policeman’s upraised arm, to strike and kill a widowed mother of five who was standing on a safety island across the way. So successful was the defense that his client not only was freed, but was later able to sue and collect from the widow’s pitiful estate for the damages suffered by his vehicle.”
When the characters are confronted with questions of morality, they find themselves in an impossible quagmire of questions such as: are we killing people who ‘deserve’ it, and they try to resolve these issues by setting rules. With the murderous team’s amoral approach to their new profession, it only seems appropriate that they should fall foul of someone even more unscrupulous than themselves.
Yes, it’s a dog-eat-dog world in The Murder League and the elderly writers even show a modicum of sympathy for Inspector Painter–a man who’s hot on their trail. Painter also feels the passage of years as his good-old-fashioned detective work is being threatened by a newfangled computer programme that predicts the number of deaths expected in London.
The Murder League is quaintly amusing more than anything else as the plot follows the geriatric murderers killing their way to a plush retirement, undervalued and underestimated by everyone they know–including their clients.