WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What’s this book about?
The story begins with an inquest upon the recently deceased Mrs. Mary Tarrant, a wealthy lady of 63 who has been an inhabitant of the private nursing and convalescent home, Forest House, at the edge of the village of Brookfield. She’s been suffering from rheumatism and the local GP, Dr. Peaslake, has prescribed pain pills for her. The resident nurse, Hester Milford, agrees with everyone that Mrs. Tarrant appears to have taken all twenty of her tablets instead of the two she was prescribed, probably due to her well-known absent-mindedness. The inquest is closed with a verdict of accidental death.
Mrs. Tarrant’s testamentary dispositions, however, have engendered more trouble than determining the cause of her death. She had found common ground with her best friend at Forest House, Mr. Henry Corfe, a retired and asthmatic tradesman on a small pension; she disliked her daughter-in-law and he disliked his son-in-law, a pushy businessman. Mr. Corfe is shocked, however, to learn that she has left him a legacy of £100,000 in her will (and £100 to Nurse Milford). According to her lawyer, Mr. Rayne, Mrs. Tarrant changed her will under conditions of great secrecy because she felt her daughter-in-law Nina would squander it — and if the vituperative Nina had found out that Mrs. Tarrant had left her money away from the family, there would be, as the local bobby puts it, “wigs on the green”. (I’ll go into this phrase below.)
We are introduced to the rest of the inhabitants of Forest House, including two elderly sisters, Mabel and Hilda Wembury, who are being approached to invest their savings by a shady Brigadier and who call in their old friend, series detective Desmond Merrion, to vet the investment. He and his wife decide to vacation in the vicinity and see what Mabel and Hilda are involved in. Just as he arrives in Brookfield, the body of one of the inhabitants of Forest House is discovered lying across the nearby railway tracks with her head bashed in.
Desmond Merrion and the local police proceed to investigate all kinds of people who have the capacity to profit financially from their involvement with various of the well-off invalids at Forest House; when another inhabitant dies mysteriously, the situation becomes even more murky. Desmond Merrion is the first to realize that a tiny incident that was assumed by all concerned to have happened in one way had actually happened in another. He couples this information with a very faint trail that suggests the involvement of one of the suspects with the latest murder, and brings the crime home to the criminal in the final chapter.
Why is this worth reading?
This book from 1960 is the last to be published under the name of Miles Burton, a pseudonym of Cecil John Charles Street, probably better known to the mystery world as the prolific John Rhode. Street’s writing career spanned 1924 to 1961 and an astonishing 140+ volumes, often at the rate of four or five a year. As was common in the Golden Age of Detection, authors who were so prolific maintained two or three pen names (apparently so that the reading public would not associate their high production rate with low quality) and Miles Burton was Street’s second pseudonym.
Both Miles Burton titles and John Rhode titles have been very scarce in the last 30 or 40 years. I’m not sure why, but despite having a backlist that could sustain the entire mid-list reprint line of a second-tier publisher, Street’s work was only rarely published in paperback. (Not entirely absent, but his paperbacks are few and far between, and all his books are pricey.) That seems to follow along with the number of ex-library copies I see for sale. The picture I’m getting is that all his books sold primarily to libraries; sold for a few months and then dropped off the face of the earth.
And you know, I’m not sure why. To me, the bare bones of the books are the workmanlike mystery plots — constructed deliberately rather than developed organically — frequently featuring poisoning plots, “infernal devices”, and “motive originating in the distant past” structures. It’s clear, though, that over the course of 140+ novels the man had something to say about non-mystery topics that interested him, particularly social class structures (especially tradesmen and workers). There are patterns and large-scale structures of repeating ideas here that would have been ideal for a publisher who wanted to maintain a huge line of mysteries with a large backlist, and I think the public would have been — and would be today — interested in reading large quantities of Street’s work. Well, at least, I would be!
In fact the prospect of reading my way through Street start to finish is a delightful one to me, and it’s just become considerably more possible by the passage of his works into the public domain in Canada, where I live, as of a few weeks ago. I promptly started downloading a few dozen of his books from archive.org and waded right in. Of course the availability of books on archive.org and other such repositories depends upon the availability of printed books in the real world, and so the older and more expensive these titles are, the longer they will take to migrate into e-formats. By and large what you can currently find is titles from Street’s later period, like this one.
And by this time in his career (he died four years later at 79 or 80 years old) he had settled into a pattern. I’m not going to say that he repeated the identical formula again and again; but so far to me it seems clear that his later books repeat about three different formulas again and again. As I remarked above, one of them is “motive originating in the distant past”; this formula I’m finding unsatisfying, because a few chapters before the end, the victim’s second cousin/heir from New Zealand turns out to have been masquerading as the chauffeur, or the vicar, or an itinerant worker, the whole time, and I don’t find that story pattern allows the sense of “fair play” that I enjoy. (As in, the chauffeur could have done it but has no motive until you find out that he will inherit everything.) It’s rather like The List of Adrian Messenger over and over again.
The formula in Legacy of Death, though, is more interesting. I’ll confess I don’t have enough evidence yet to identify completely how it works, but it’s a slight change to the long-lost heir plot. In this type of Street book, a character has a motive for murder that is apparent, but for some reason — lack of knowledge, lack of opportunity — is considered to be out of the running as a suspect. Here, there is a squarely-placed clue to what has happened, and Street encourages the reader to misinterpret it … I didn’t, and I suspect you might not either, but I actually enjoy that in a mystery also. I did work this one out in advance because I’m fanatical about that, but I suspect the average reader may reach the end and think, “Oh, yes, so THAT’s what that was all about. I was halfway to the solution but missed that one little idea. Well, at least, I had a fair shot at figuring out whodunit.”
So, is this worth reading? I’ll be honest and say that while this one is pleasant, it’s nothing special. I found it an enjoyable experience because it’s a good example of how Street was constructing workmanlike mysteries at the end of his career. It’s not terrible (he says, damning it with faint praise). I’ll give you a fine distinction that I’ve used elsewhere to describe poorly-written but enthusiastic literature; this is a time-passer rather than a time-waster.
Oh, and “wigs on the green”? I’m not often completely at a loss when I read an English phrase, but this one was completely new to me. If a bitchy prospective heiress learns she’s not getting an inheritance after all, “there would certainly be wigs on the green.” My research tells me that this is an Irish expression dating back to the days when men wore powdered wigs. Here’s an uncharacteristically literate definition from Urban Dictionary:
Wigs on the green refers to a fight, brawl or fracas, or to a difference of opinion that could lead to fisticuffs. It often appears as “there’ll be wigs on the green”, as a warning (or a prediction) that an altercation is likely to occur. It is originally Irish, dating from the eighteenth century, when men usually wore wigs. If a fight started, the first thing that happened was that the wigs of those involved would be knocked off and would roll incongruously about on the grass, to the amusement of bystanders and the embarrassment of participants. It has fallen out of use in modern times but continues to be used by intellectuals especially in Ireland.
My favourite edition
The copy I used to prepare this review was from archive.org and can be found here; it’s the only copy I’ve ever seen. As I noted, Street is currently in the public domain if you live in Canada or Australia.
The only illustration that I can find of the jacket of the only edition of this book (Collins Crime Club, 1960) on the Internet is the copyrighted property of ClassicCrimeFiction.com. It is overall a repellant salmon pink with blue and black accents, showing a man pouring liquid from a small bottle into a large one, and you can see it in all its glory here. If you want to buy one, it doesn’t seem as if they have one in stock; you can get an ex-library copy from about US$22, and a VG copy in jacket for about US$95. (Someone in Hay-on-Wye wants US$185, which seems excessive for merely a VG copy.)
I’ve been meaning to try the Miles Burton books. I’m a big fan of the Dr Priestley mysteries he wrote as John Rhode.
I believe Curtis mentioned a while back that the present copyright holders of Street’s work have been amazingly difficult to deal with. Apparently they think they should be making big bucks out of these books and won’t allow them to be published unless there’s lots of money in it – more money than any small publisher can afford.
Really? I wasn’t aware of that. They may find that their window of opportunity is slipping away, like it has in Canada. I’ve been wondering if there’s a way to publish them myself here.
Desmond Marrion is more “on the spot” than Dr. Priestly, I think you’ll find, more hands-on detecting and not second-hand through Jimmy Waghorn.
The British Library Crime Classics series is publishing two Burtons this year, The Secret of High Eldersham and Death in the Tunnel. Maybe there’s a chance they’ll “do a Farjeon” and publish more if those sell well…and there’s every chance they will shift, as the series is garnering a lot of attention in the UK. Here’s hoping, eh?