Eric Wright’s THE NIGHT THE GODS SMILED is the first novel in a mystery series featuring Inspector Charlie Salter of the Toronto police. It was published in 1983, so it is an old-fashioned police procedural told as Charlie sees the case unfold. It is available in Kindle format in A CHARLIE SALTER OMNIBUS.
Charlie Salter is an attractive protagonist, 46 years old, contentedly married with two sons, but initially depressed because his career is down the tubes. He backed the wrong candidate for the Deputy Chief’s job and has been sidelined for over a year with “general duties” assignments--the piddling details no one else wants to do. When David Summers, a professor of English at Toronto’s Douglas College is murdered while attending an English conference in Montreal, Salter is assigned to assist Henri O’Brien of the Montreal police by questioning Summers’s local associates. Summers, Professor Dunkley (his long-time enemy), John Carrier, Marika Tils, Professor Usher, and Toby Pollock annually attend a conference together after the end of term; they also meet up with former colleague Jane Homer. The murder scene looks like a robbery by a prostitute and/or her pimp gone bad, but Summers’s wallet hasn’t been taken. As Salter pokes around and asks questions, he discovers political, social, and sexual tensions within the English Department and something that had produced a “day the gods were smiling” for Summers his last day on earth. But what? Why had Summers been killed?
I like Inspector Charlie Salter. He’s a believable character, a man who grew up poor but married above his social class. “From the beginning, [Salter] had defended himself against feeling like the poor cousin by refusing to get involved in activities such as sailing, playing bridge, tennis, trout-fishing with flies, and constructing bonfires suitable for baking clams. Apart from the skills involved, he was sure he would get the costume wrong and appear in sandals for some activity that required hiking boots or bare feet. So when he was on the Island [Prince Edward] he played golf, a game to which he had been introduced to by some police pals; he swam; and he watched the other activities from a distance, or ignored them altogether. Over the years his bloody-mindedness and their consideration for his feelings had created two worlds, one which involved him, and the other one which they talked about and enjoyed among themselves. It was an arrangement that suited him, preserved his independence, as he put it to himself... Salter came by his attitudes honestly enough; his father had tried no new foods, at home or in restaurants, for thirty years, on the grounds that it was all foreign muck and you couldn’t tell what you were eating. The truth was that the old man was afraid he would make a fool of himself by not knowing how to eat it.” (30-1) Charlie is a dynamic character who grows realistically in the course of the case. Other characters are well drawn. I have relatives like his father.
Wright locates the story firmly with details of locale, and he also uses atmosphere to add to characterization. “Salter let his host [Henri O’Brien] do the ordering, and they ate some carrot soup, a veal stew that tasted agreeably of liquorice, and a big piece of soft, white cheese with some strawberries. They ate a lot of bread with it and drank a big bottle of wine. Salter was not a connoisseur, but he had eaten enough bad food to know the good when he tasted it, even if the upper levels of discrimination were beyond him. This all tasted all right.” (188-90)
Despite Wright’s skillful misdirection, he includes appropriate clues that produce a satisfactory surprise ending. It’s gratifying that Salter’s success in solving the case puts him back on track in his career. I do have a couple of small complaints. Henri O’Brien introduces himself to Salter as Inspector O’Brien; throughout the rest of the book, he’s referred to as Sergeant O’Brien. Several of the characters, including two of the English professors, have no given names, only family ones. But these are minor matters.
Despite its age, THE NIGHT THE GODS SMILED is solidly written and holds up well. I’ll be looking for more books in the series.