Lorry driver Charlie Hatton shows up late to Jack Pertwee’s stag party. Charlie “was a little fellow with a brown face and very brilliant sharp eyes. They flashed quickly and calculatingly over the assembled company before Charlie smiled. He showed a set of perfect white teeth which no one there but Jack knew were false.” Charlie proceeds to needle the guests at the Kingsmarkham and District Darts Club while also showing off a significant wad of cash. But how did a lorry driver come by such ready cash? Could it have something to do with the fact that Charlie’s lorry had been hi-jacked twice before?
Meanwhile, Dorothy Fanshawe has awoken from a six week coma following a horrific auto accident that claimed the lives of her husband and daughter. But when she is told the news in an effort to jog her memory, Mrs. Fanshawe insists, “But my daughter wasn’t in the car.” Though Dorothy’s sister had been able to identify the body, no identifying articles were discovered in the late young woman’s purse.
When Charlie turns up dead on the day of Jack’s wedding, Inspector Wexford is on the scene. When bridegroom Jack Pertwee is informed of his best man Charlie’s death, he calls off the wedding. Of the two men’s friendship, we’re told “without each other their lives would be incomplete, lacking, as it were, the essence and the fuse.” “They were as David and Jonathan”, only Charlie’s Jonathan “thou wast slain in thy high places…”
Inspector Wexford begins his investigation by questioning the men who had been at the stag party the night Charlie was killed. One of them, another lorry driver, Maurice Callum, had been one of the last to see Charlie alive. He also had asked Charlie a curious question: “Been seeing much of McCloy lately?” It’s a question that leads Wexford to delve into how Charlie came to earn more than the typical lorry driver.
Ruth Rendell’s The Best Man to Die was first published in 1969. It’s the 4th book to feature Inspector Wexford, the author’s most prominent recurring character. It’s a cleverly plotted tale that features two seemingly disparate storylines, but, of course, all you savvy mystery readers will know they’re connected somehow. The question is how does Mrs. Fanshawe’s accident connect to Charlie Hatton’s murder?
It’s a tidily wrapped up mystery though it might seem there are a bit too many coincidences involved. As an aside early on, Wexford suggests, “Now if we were cops inside the covers of a detective story, … we’d know for sure that Hatton was killed to stop Pertwee getting married today.” This ironic observation goes on to mention “that’s your author’s subtlety.” It’s a neat little nod to the crafting of a mystery novel, and how author’s bend real life to form a solvable puzzle.
While it might be relatively easy to guess whodunit, it was most definitely a conundrum to figure out how everything fit together until Wexford explains it all. An entertaining read to while away an evening or whenever you’ve the time to set aside.
The novel was adapted in 1990 for the Ruth Rendell Mysteries TV series (1987-2000) as part of the 4th season. The series starred George Baker as Wexford. Unfortunately, these particular episodes don’t appear to be currently available on DVD or for streaming.