Although C. S. Forester is best known, and will most be remembered, for his Hornblower series and other tales of dashing military actions, he served his apprenticeship writing mystery thrillers that are well worth reading. Of these, Payment Deferred and Plain Murder (1930) are the most successful. Both works follow the inverted format; that is, the stories are told from the viewpoint of the criminal. His protagonists are ordinary working-class people who somehow summon the nerve to commit murders, then suffer the disrupting consequences of their acts. Avoiding a common failing of classical mysteries, Forester put life into the plots by logically developing the complications and tension that consume criminals’ lives after they perform these desperate acts. His mysteries then chronicle the killers’ descent into the horrors that inevitably follow. Forester would have nothing of the classical English tea cozies with their bloodless victims, parades of clues, and faintly comedic overtones.
William Marble, a shabbily dressed bank clerk who serves as the protagonist of Payment Deferred, is a man on the ragged edge of destitution, sorely pressed to pay the debts looming over his rented house in a dreary London suburb. He holds to a thin thread of respect from his coworkers and his family, a frail, weak-willed wife named Annie and two children. He would be an alcoholic but for the fact that he cannot afford to buy enough whiskey. Opportunity knocks one blustery evening in the form of Jim Medland, a distant nephew from Melbourne. Jim has come to visit his only surviving family since the death of his mother. He makes the mistake, however, of flashing a wad of bank notes in his wallet. Marble’s mind churns at the possibilities, and the reader is surprised to discover a mind capable of strong focus, at least for brief periods of time. This mental nimbleness under pressure is characteristic of all Forester’s mystery protagonists and goes a long way toward rounding out their personalities. The same powers of superhuman concentration are also an important element of Forester’s later series hero, Horatio Hornblower, a much more sympathetic character.
Marble offers drinks from his last precious bottle to young Jim and hints at the possibility of an inter-family loan, a prospect that Jim dodges most firmly. Now comes the crux of Marble’s life: Feigning that he has heard someone cry out, he rushes upstairs, still holding the glass of whiskey he has been pouring for Jim. While there, Marble laces the drink with potassium cyanide from a cabinet of photographic chemicals. He returns with the glass and urges Jim to drink; death comes quickly for young Jim. As the body must be disposed of, that night Marble digs up a dormant flower bed in his rear garden and buries Jim. No one will miss the visitor from Australia or disturb the weedy gravesite—except in Marble’s mind.
Now the story truly begins. Forester paints one man’s degeneration into all-consuming obsession of which Edgar Allan Poe would have been proud. Marble gives Annie money to pay off the most urgent bills, but he withholds the larger denominations from Jim’s wallet for fear that they will be somehow traced back to the missing Australian. Marble’s need for money heightens when he realizes that his landlord could someday put him out of his house. New tenants might dig up the garden and discover the body. Nevertheless, Marble rises to meet this crisis as well. His job at the bank involves dealing with foreign currency exchange, and he puzzles out a risky but wildly profitable plan to trade on the volatile French franc. He uses a local bookmaker to front for him, buys into the exchange market at a strong leverage, and exits the next day a newly rich man. Forester invents the scheme’s workings with a marvelous richness of detail, giving the reader a sense of looking over Marble’s shoulder as he follows the market’s fluctuations. Readers cannot help being drawn into plots so carefully researched and written; this strength of Forester’s writing goes far in explaining his great popularity.
At this point, all would seem well for Marble. The money, however, does not buy happiness. Gradually, he concludes that there is no escape for him even after buying the house. He purchases an extensive library of crime and forensic books, brooding over them for hours while drinking and watching the muddy tangle of weeds in his back garden. In a desperate attempt at diversion, he has a brief affair with a predatory dressmaker, Madame Collins. Annie finally...
(The entire section is 1881 words.)