The Goldfish Murders (1950) seems to be the only book ever written by Will Mitchell. This is a combination of great shame and great relief, as The Goldfish Murders might be one of the strangest books I've stumbled across in a long, long while. Half pastiche, half morbid fantasia, Mr. Mitchell's sole work is a unique contribution to detective fiction.
Lieutenant Lash is just wandering out of a movie theatre on a rare day off when he's tackled by a taxi driver and dragged over to view a homicide. A lovely dame has been dameslaughtered - stabbed through the heart with an antique dagger and left to die. Adding insult to injury, a goldfish has been delicately tucked between her breasts. Lash - paired with his professional rival, Sergeant Regan - sallies forth to seek out the killer, and winds up knee deep in skulduggery.
The Goldfish Murders reads like the poor man's Shell Scott. Nary a page flies by without a single forced quip or heavy-handed boob joke. By way of contrast, my fish puns in the previous paragraph are masterpieces of subtlety and discretion. Mitchell's style gets so self-consciously "cheeky" that the reader prays for the murderer to strike.
In a rather weak defense, The Goldfish Murders is actually so astoundingly distasteful at times, it loops right around again, and becomes funny in a completely unintentional way. Perhaps the best example is "Doc" Berlinger, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner (and County Necrophiliac). When Lash queries him for a little forensic advice, this is what he receives:
"Sweetest pair of knockers I've seen in a dog's age," he gloated with all the fervor of a connoisseur. "Mily white and as shapely as a couple of butter-dish covers. Positively beautiful, I tell you. Ah! And the rosebuds - sheer poetry, gentlemen." (16)
Lash, thankfully, interrupts his "sermon on the mound" (easily Mitchell's best phrase), but the damage is done. Doc returns later to molest another corpse and then, yet again, to thoughtfully offer the love interest a "free examination". Cheesy jokes - made deeply disturbing because he's TALKING ABOUT DEAD PEOPLE. But, in the world of Will Mitchell, breasts are breasts and warrant attention wherever they may be. (Although this is incorrect: breasts are many, many things in The Goldfish Murders, including "pouter pigeons" and, ickily, "dairy").
The saving grace of The Goldfish Murders certainly isn't the bellicose Lieutenant Lash, who is neither particularly charming nor good at his job. Still, viewing his competition, Sergeant Regan, it is clear how Lash received his rank: he's a one-eyed gorilla in the land of blind monkeys. Surprisingly, the most memorable character is Penny Forbes, the actress/love interest/lunatic. A friend of the accused (just a friend-friend, no hanky-panky), Forbes is caught playing around on a crime scene. She's a good looking vixen with quality dairy of her own (and therefore either the a) killer or b) love interest if not c) both), and Lash falls for her immediately.
And, again rising in his defense, that's pretty fair. Forbes is batshit crazy, meaning he may have a shot at her. She's prone to spouting Shakespeare, petty larceny and horrific lies. She also has a Spitz named Cuspidor and a leading role in the new show, "The Goldfish Follies". To promote the show, she passes out goldfish to everyone she meets, and always has a handful of the critters with her. This is what passes for rational behaviour in the mind of Penny Forbes.
"I took time out to look at Penny. She'd placed a pitcher of water in front of her, tied a shoelace to a bread stick, and was fishing for two dead goldfish that were half submerged in the pitcher of water. She was so intent on what she was doing that I didn't disturb her. But I prayed something to the effect that the waiter wouldn't drop the steaks when it came time to serve us." (222)
Kind of adorable, and again, kind of funny. Except for the fact that the female lead spends the entire book carrying a purse filled with dead fish. Will Mitchell evidently has a more casual view of death than the rest of the Western world. Rather than being pleasantly quirky, Penny is outright creepy (and, presumably, kind of stinky).
The mystery portion of the mystery isn't badly constructed, but Mr. Mitchell never really generates the tension that it needs to succeed. Lash and Penny are both protected by God's love of fools and madmen - there's never really any doubt that Lash will catch the real killer and they'll wind up happily together. Even during the mandatory held-at-gunpoint climax, it is difficult to muster any sort of real anxiety for the situation. The villain monologues for six pages to prove how clever the author was - a cleverness that is ultimately undermined by the bad guy being the most obviously unpleasant person in the book (not Lash).
The Goldfish Murders really is an awful book - a self-conscious, over-stylized pastiche that ultimately fails to entertain the reader. That's not to say it is completely without its moments - Mr. Mitchell's work is simply too weird to be dismissed completely. A few of the author's decisions are goofy enough to take on a life of their own, and, combined with the jaw-dropping lunacy of Penny Forbes, there are certainly some enjoyable moments... if not in the way they were originally intended.