Murder and Zucchini, Part 2

41VRyageRJLA little more than two years ago, I published a not-very-serious piece about zucchinis in murder mysteries.  You can find it here.  In it, I talked about an obscure mystery by John Rhode called Vegetable Duck in which a maid/cook scrapes out the inside of a zucchini and replaces it with minced mutton, parsley, onion, herbs, and a little dripping, a wartime recipe known as vegetable duck. Sounds tasty, actually!! Right up until it ends up being poisonous to the poor victim.

VegDuckWell, in that post, I suggested that I wasn’t aware of any specialized tool with which to do that job and, gentle reader, now I am. The illustration nearby is of a zucchini corer that you can currently acquire on Amazon for a fairly reasonable price.

I’m still interested in the rare occurrences of natural poisoning by cucurbitacin, a toxin that naturally occurs in zucchini … but I may just have to get myself a zucchini corer and try a recipe.  If you’re interested in a serious look at this book, by the way, my friend John Norris at his blog Pretty Sinister Books did the definitive review in 2012.  Hope they bring this back into print some day!!

 

A brief look at Michael Gilbert

Michael Gilbert (young)

Michael Gilbert in his younger days

As I mentioned the other day, I have acquired enough Michael Gilbert novels in the last while to devote an entire post to them en masse. Lately I picked up an armful of paperbacks, and I went out and supplanted that with e-books as my fancy took me. As you will soon see, when I want to read an author, I want them ALL.  I’m still waiting on a few, but I’m determined to read everything of his, it’s all that good. And I had at least one discovery of a great novel that I hadn’t read before.

There’s an excellent tribute to and biography of Gilbert here, by Martin Edwards, who took over editing the CWA anthologies from him and obviously feels the same way about this writer as I do — a brilliant man whose death in 2006 cost the world a great writer of the old school. You’ll find a full bibliography here.

707228I’ve already had quite a bit to say about a couple of his books: The Crack in the Teacup (1966), Petrella at Q (1977), and his first mystery, Close Quarters from 1947. I think it’s clear that this discussion will be coloured by the fact that, just in general, I really like Gilbert’s writing style and I’d overlook a lot of minor flaws because he tells stories that I enjoy reading. So if you’re looking for any vitriol about this particular author, you’re not likely to hear it from me. He’s an excellent writer and I recommend you read your way through him start to finish. As a stylist, he writes the elegant prose of a lawyer, which he was; I understand he used to write his fiction on the train as he traveled to and from London to his office.

close-quartersThere are at least three different types of story that Gilbert writes; the trouble is, it’s not easy to boil them down into categories with succinct and tidy labels, at least for me. As well, Gilbert didn’t usually write long series of books; the most in a series is six. He’s one of the few writers who attracts my attention with a volume of short stories. It’s kind of a peculiarity of mine —  I’m just not all that interested in other authors’ short stories because usually they’re written to make or illustrate a single point, and once I get it, there’s no more flavour. But Gilbert writes volumes of linked stories and they seem to carry a full-length narrative for me. Anyway, he has a few series, lots of non-series novels, and volumes of short stories. To quote Martin Edwards, “He is never dull, he never writes the same book twice.” The story types are anything but rigid; it’s more like he has a couple of preoccupations that show up in many of his novels (the law, for instance, and struggling against injustice) and then he’s wonderfully inventive and inter-relative about the rest.

51KZf83GNSLSo think of these as loose ways to organize Gilbert’s work. As I’ve said, there are preoccupations — the law, justice, courtroom drama, triumph of the little man — and a few types. The three main types I’ve noticed are:

  • Straightforward puzzle mysteries, often with Inspector Hazelrigg but there’s a lot of standalone novels that hearken back to the Golden Age. There’s also a strong thread of courtroom drama in many of his later works but it’s not restricted to this type.
  • One man fighting against great odds. As I said, it’s not easy to describe these, but The Crack in the Teacup is a good example. Sometimes the protagonist is damaged by an powerful antagonist and spends the book getting his own back; sometimes the protagonist sees injustice and merely wants to see justice triumph. Although there is definitely a case for calling the stories about Inspector Petrella police procedurals, I ended up thinking of them in this category because Petrella is constantly battling against both criminals and the police apparatus. There’s also a bunch of stories in this category that have a background of inter-corporate warfare.
  • Political and/or spy thrillers. I tend not to read this style of book as a rule but Gilbert is such a good writer he can carry me along; he understands politics and even his most rollicking adventure stories, like The 92nd Tiger, have underlying truths in them.

So here’s a bunch of little snippets of opinion about the great number of these I’ve read lately, in no particular order. I’ll try and identify the type.

9418707._UY200_Flash Point (1974). Against great odds. The one veers into the political thriller territory but really is the story of a pugnacious little guy who decides to hold a union official to account for a few hundred pounds and ends up bringing down the British government. Part courtroom thriller, part political thriller, and just a good story with a nice twist at the end.

 

 

 

death-of-a-favourite-girlDeath of a Favourite Girl (1980). Puzzle mystery. Also published as The Killing of Katie Steelstock. A fairly traditional puzzle mystery about the brutal killing of a young TV star who is visiting her home village. Part police procedural, part courtroom thriller, and with some very modern undercurrents that must have been quite risqué for 1980. With a surprising but exquisitely foreshadowed twist ending.

 

 

26183691The Doors Open (1949). Against great odds. Although this one has many of Gilbert’s recurring themes (part courtroom drama, part corporate thriller, part political thriller); essentially the story of an evil person who seeks a long, long revenge and is ultimately thwarted by a good man who wants to see justice done. A very satisfying ending.

 

 

smallboneSmallbone Deceased (1950). Puzzle mystery. Often said to be Gilbert’s finest achievement; certainly it’s got everything you could want in a puzzle mystery. Inspector Hazelrigg investigates the case of a body found in a deed box in a staid and old-fashioned solicitor’s office. You understand the people, you are taught the routines of the daily grind of a solicitor’s office in a painless and intelligent way, and there’s a legal trick that you won’t see coming that underlies a major plot thread. I suspect the ending will surprise you very much; it’s logical but difficult to get to unaided.

squareThey Never Looked Inside (1948). Also published as He Didn’t Mind DangerPart detective story, part against great odds. Major McCann decides to help out Inspector Hazelrigg in the problem of ex-servicemen who are being recruited to commit crimes, and thereby runs up against a huge and vicious criminal organization.

1807483Death Has Deep Roots (1951). Puzzle mystery with a strong thread of courtroom drama. It’s the story of Victoria Lamartine, who was in France during WW2 and became pregnant; her handsome young Lieutenant Wells gets killed by the Germans. Vicky is also taken prisoner and her child disappears. She thinks the Lieutenant’s superior officer, Major Thoseby, might know what happened and spends years trying to find him after the war; she does, and he is murdered. The book details the courtroom process of her solicitors trying to defend her against that prosecution.  I think this is an exceptional book and well worth your time if you like courtroom drama.

9418548Fear To Tread (1953). Against great odds. This is the final Inspector Hazelrigg story but really it’s an “against great odds” story; Mr. Wetherall, headmaster of a boys’ secondary school, uncovers a large-scale black market operation and volunteers to assist the police in breaking it up. Mr. Wetherall is a delightful character and the twist in the ending is very satisfying.

 

 

15129384The Body of a Girl (1972). Puzzle mystery with overtones of the police procedural. Detective Chief Inspector Mercer is a hard man who comes to Stoneferry upon his promotion to DCI and leads the investigation of a corpse found in a well-known lovers’ lane. He also solves a couple of other crimes, some of which will surprise the reader. Mercer is a fascinating protagonist who has more to his character than is immediately obvious; a very satisfying ending.

 

10985075Blood and Judgment (1959). Puzzle mystery. Inspector Petrella, in a full-length outing for once, investigates crimes for which one Boot Howton, a habitual criminal, is on trial. Petrella angers his superiors by coming up with an entirely unexpected line of inquiry into certain of the crimes and an entirely unsuspected criminal.

 

 

 

17345812After the Fine Weather (1963). Political thriller. I’m not fond of this style of story and yet couldn’t stop reading this one; a young woman finds herself in danger because she is the only eyewitness to a secret about a political assassination in the Tyrol. Full of double and triple crosses and harsh political realities, a fast-moving story with plenty of excitement.

 

 

danger-withinDeath in Captivity (1952). Also published as The Danger WithinPuzzle mystery. One of my favourite of all Gilbert’s novels, this is the story of a murder among Allied prisoners in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp in WW2. I don’t remember ever reading anything that seemed to be so accurate about the details of everyday life in a prison camp, while still providing fascinating material about who might kill a prisoner and why. My only quibble with this book is that the final sixth of the book has quite a different tone and approach than the rest of the book, and I found it somewhat jarring. The solution, though, is excellent. You’ll note from the Pan tie-in edition I’ve chosen to illustrate this that it was made into a film … which I haven’t yet found.

51qo77AYM4L._SX348_BO1,204,203,200_Paint, Gold & Blood (1989). Against great odds. I didn’t find the story of art smuggling all that fascinating, but there’s a wonderful process whereby two schoolboys get their revenge upon a cruel schoolmaster/churchman that is delightful, and there’s a business idea that’s probably worth doing to this day. The portrait of the brilliant young man who invents the idea is the centrepiece of the book; it’s a bit like Young Sherlock and Young Watson. There’s also a use of Samuel Pepys’ personal shorthand as a way of transmitting confidential information; many things to like about this book even if the art smuggling isn’t of much interest.

1721464Sky High (1955).  Also published as The Country-House Burglar. Puzzle mystery. This is a story that John Rhode would have tackled but didn’t have the writing skill to bring to life; essentially a howdunit about a mysterious ex-Army type in a small village whose house explodes one summer night. It’s the characterization and dialogue that make this story the enjoyable book it is. I found the final chapter delightful; it ties off some loose ends in a very happy ending indeed.

 

stay-of-execution-8Stay of Execution and Other Stories of Legal Practice (1971). This is a set of short stories all of which are linked by the practice of law; some courtroom drama, some less than perfect lawyers, et cetera. Only a few of these are simple stories done to illustrate a point; more often than not they are complicated tales that lead you in one direction and then take you to a startling realization in a very satisfying way. Gilbert was, of course, a lawyer in active practice. Some of these stories will only really be satisfying to people who work in that profession, but they will be very satisfied indeed.

51+y2qobEfL.SX316.SY316The 92nd Tiger (1973). Political thriller. As I noted above, I’m an unlikely customer for this sort of novel but found it engaging and very readable. It’s the story of Hugo Greest, a TV actor who is the lead in a series about The Tiger, a karate-chopping womanizing spy. Just as his series comes to its end, Greest is offered a job by the leader of a small Persian Gulf country recently enriched by the discovery of a rare mineral; he is to equip and train a small army for the Ruler. Since he actually speaks Arabic this is not outrageously unreasonable. There’s a plot to supplant the Ruler and Greest, against great odds, stops the coup, rescues the Heir, and gets the girl. Not a shred of reality here, more like an extremely good-humoured James Bond novel or a very hard-hitting Dick Francis novel, but funny and gruesome by turns, and it held my attention.

2857137The Empty House (1979). Political thriller and against great odds. Young Peter Manciple is an inexperienced insurance adjuster assigned to investigate the death of a policy-holder whose car went over a cliff. This turns out to be merely the tip of the iceberg and lead to a plot involving international intrigue, romance, and biological warfare. It’s certainly an interesting story but I found the ending not quite up to Gilbert’s usual desire to leave the reader happy and satisfied; this is a little depressing and squalid.

 

7089.jpgThe Final Throw (1982). Also published as End-GameAgainst great odds. A young and rather dissolute Welshman goes undercover as a fairly incompetent tour guide around Europe in order to expose drug trafficking and organized crime. The stakes become very high when he must locate a down-and-out drug addicted vagrant who has some incriminating documents.

 

 

md22849633937The Etruscan Net (1960). Puzzle mystery with a little bit of everything. Robert Broke is an Englishman in Florence running a small gallery. After touching on a potential case of forgery of Etruscan antiques, he finds himself up against the local Mafia and a ring of spies, and is soon on trial for manslaughter. A brilliant Italian defence lawyer solves the case and ties off all the loose ends. The Florentine background is interesting and it’s clear that Gilbert had some experience there.

 

511jGyH9bPL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The Night of the Twelfth (1976). Puzzle mystery and one of the most frightening books I’ve ever read — it’s about a serial killer who tortures, rapes, and murders young boys. The main part of the book takes place in the milieu of Trenchard House School, a boys’ school; a few senior boys and junior masters are the principal characters. Gilbert ably threads the difficulties of a very serious underlying plot and lifts the boys’ characters far, far above the Boys’ Own Paper level, helped by one who is the son of the Israeli ambassador and is accustomed to violence. A surprisingly intelligent book with a horrifying ending that had me on the edge of my chair.

51k-s5u8ttL.SX160.SY160Ring of Terror (1995). Political thriller and much more. I wanted to end this on a high note; before this year I hadn’t read any of the three novels in a series about Luke Pagan and Joe Narrabone, and so I only obtained the first one, Ring of Terror. It’s my best discovery of any of this bunch, almost all of which I had read before — just a great novel. It’s a historical novel set in 1913 about young Luke Pagan whose knowledge of Russian makes him extremely valuable to the Metropolitan Police (and to the Home Secretary, one Winston Churchill). Pagan is set to investigate Russian immigrants; some anarchists, some merely criminals, and some entirely innocent — the stakes are very, very high and the story is exciting. I thought as I was midway through the book that this is the type of story that Gilbert was born to write. His command of the period is sufficient to convince me he’s done his research; we know the outlines of the politics involved but, like Churchill’s role, there will be much here that is new to the reader. Gilbert was not afraid to talk about the nasty, violent, and squalid as part of where he had to go with this book, and it’s a rather brutal reality for the protagonist, but it made for a fine and exciting story. Plot, characterization, and writing are all excellent. If I’d ever done a “Top 10 Michael Gilbert novels” list I would have had to revise it all downwards after finding this gem.

Michael Gilbert (later years)

Michael Gilbert in later years

To my surprise there are still a bunch more, but I think I can mop up in a smaller post some time soon. I hope you try Ring of Terror on my recommendation, if you want the male version of Anne Perry with great writing skills, and if you like novels about a protagonist fighting against great odds, that’s Gilbert’s specialty and there are a bunch of titles here for you.

One final note: I wanted to mention that although it is my usual practice to show you the book from which I wrote the piece, that is not the case here. There are so many interesting editions of Michael Gilbert that I wanted to show you a few of the more interesting ones, but they are pictures I scavenged from the internet.

 

 

 

 

The Chinese Puzzle, by Miles Burton (1957)

The Chinese Puzzle, by Miles Burton (1957)

100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #009

13563606What’s this book about?

In a British seaport town, a constable is summoned to the scene of an assault. The locale is squalid and poor, and the particular lodging house at which the assault took place is owned by one Spotty Jim, well known to the police. A Chinese lodger in the house has been assaulted by another Chinese man using a carpenter’s hammer, although the police are experiencing some difficulty in correctly identifying the assailant and the victim.

Desmond Merrion, the series detective, doesn’t claim to be an “Old China Hand”, although he has spent some time in both Hong Kong and Shanghai. He takes a hand in the investigation at the request of Inspector Arnold and helps to untangle a complicated tale of a Chinese laundry worker with too much money in the Post Office Savings Bank, opium smoking, politics, and murder.

9781627550840_200_the-chinese-puzzleWhy is this worth reading?

Well, you know, it’s not. To paraphrase Monty Python, this is not a book for reading; this is a book for laying down and avoiding.

I could understand this book having been written in, say, 1917 or 1923. Ignorance about Chinese people is a hallmark of the Golden Age and pre-Golden Age literature that portrayed them as the “Yellow Peril”, and pretty young white girls were forever stumbling into the clutches of a Chinese mastermind puffing his opium pipe with his eye on world domination.

33f3aa9e0e5e47d913d3b0304c97ec60There was so much of this literature at the time that in 1929 Ronald Knox, a mystery writer and cleric, made one of his “Ten Commandments” for the writing of a detective story that “No Chinaman shall figure in the story.” My idea is that Knox was reacting against a type of story where a criminal mastermind like Fu Manchu could cause plot developments to happen without the necessity of them being sensible or even possible — “Send a thousand coolies to search the city until the woman is found!” type of thing. The authors were white people writing for an audience of white people, and no real knowledge of Chinese people or customs were necessary because, in 1929, the chance of any reader actually having first-hand knowledge of Chinese culture was pretty much non-existent. Authors like Agatha Christie (“The Lost Mine”) and Conan Doyle (“The Man with the Twisted Lip”) wrote stories about opium dens and Chinese secret societies, apparently without the benefit of any research or personal knowledge. In short, they made it up to amuse readers who would never be any the wiser, or care about the reality of the Chinese experience. And they did it so much that it became a cliche.

So in the late 1920s, it was already quite passé to write about mysterious slant-eyed adventuresses luring innocent young white men into a Limehouse opium den. Besides, there weren’t that many Chinese people living in Britain at that point anyway. “The 1921 census figures put the Chinese-born resident population at 2,419.” (From Wikipedia, here.)

chinee-laundryman-never-sleeps1.pngIn the ensuing decades, Britain restricted Chinese immigration and treated Chinese workers and seamen very poorly, forcibly repatriating thousands of Chinese seamen back to Asia after WWII. Most of the Chinese people in Britain in the ’50s were employed in the declining “Chinese laundry” industry and the burgeoning Chinese restaurant industry. In 1951 there were 12,523 Chinese in Britain, and in 1961 the Chinese population was 38,750 — they apparently invented the “takeaway” style restaurant which is now dominated by a later wave of South Asian immigrants.

And in 1957, “Miles Burton” (Maj. John Street, who also wrote as John Rhode) wrote this piece of nonsense.  To start with, the names of the Chinese people themselves are made up out of whole cloth; one of the principal characters is Ah Lock, which is nowhere near a realistic name for a Chinese person. (Something like calling a character “John Smithsky” or “John Smithovich”, I think.) (**See the end of this post: I’ve added a comment that indicates I was wrong about two things in the preceding sentences.) All the white people are constantly making general remarks about the nature of the Chinese personality — “Chinese are apt to scrap among themselves at the slightest or no provocation.” “The others are always chattering away like so many monkeys, but Ah Lock very rarely said a word.” “Most Chinese men are remarkably clever with their hands.” The book is full of such generalizations.

And their command of English is ghastly. Here’s a fairly characteristic passage.

Chu Shek nodded. “That light. They no come back till half-past five. Me all alone. Wife she go sit in gardens. She say flesh air good. Me no likee sit do not’ing.”

“That light” is meant to indicate “That’s right.” Ugh. Sure, this is pidgin English, but these people have been surrounded by white English speakers for years; pidgin should have been far behind them at this point. Apparently the author found it amusing to write, though, so it fills the book. Chu Shek is another nonsensical made-up name. Another fairly major character is a man named Lo Fat, and the author invites you to snigger along with him at how, by golly, this means something quite different in English. And the man isn’t fat! Hilarious.

As I’ve noted previously, Street pays a lot of attention to social class; a common preoccupation for Golden Age mystery writers, it seems. He is on familiar ground when he is talking about the precise social distinctions that separate rural farmers and tradespeople from their “social betters” up at the Manor, and why a doctor’s widow can lord it over a storekeeper’s widow, et cetera.

This book, though, is just … ugly. Really ugly. It’s clear that Street thinks that there’s nothing wrong in comparing Chinese workers to monkeys. And it’s clear that he knows little or nothing about how they speak, or what they think about, or what motivates them. The characters execute their functions in the book with no regard to realism — because Street doesn’t care about them as people. To him, they’re monkeys. They don’t fit into the English class structure because they are below it.

soapine-boston-publ-libraryThere’s an unspoken but obvious assumption underlying the narrative that white people are superior to Chinese people, and it penetrates every level of society. The shared understanding of the white people is that if they go to Asia, they can become an “old China hand” by being able to understand a few words of Cantonese or Mandarin and making business arrangements with the locals. But when Chinese people from Hong Kong — who were putatively entitled to British citizenship — come to Britain, unless they are extremely wealthy they are relegated to doing white people’s laundry and crewing their ships. The Chinese people are expected to make all the adjustments to whites, learn English, and put up with whatever scorn white people care to heap upon them.

Here’s the comments of a (white) lady at the Post Office asked to comment upon one of the Chinese people who paid into the Savings Bank: “He always came to me, for I seemed to be able to understand his few words of funny English better than the others.” It’s clear from her tone that she regards her customer as the equivalent of a child or a mentally handicapped person. And when a Chinese man who works for the “Anglo-Chinese Aid Society” shows up, Inspector Arnold notes:

“… Mr. Ling Tam … was a comparatively young man, remarkably well dressed and wearing tortoise-shell spectacles. Apart from his features, which were unmistakably Oriental, he might have been an English professional man. Somewhat relieved by his appearance, Arnold asked him to be seated.”

chineselaundry03There is much, much more of this; it permeates the book like a bad smell. Honestly, I just couldn’t read a lot of it. It takes an awful lot for me to be unable to finish a murder mystery, but upon my first attempt at this book, I was so frustrated and angry that I just skipped through the middle section of the book and read the ending. Which, incidentally, is permeated with more racism and generalizations about the Chinese character. When confronted, the murderer confesses — because, as Desmond Merrion says, “I was gambling on the Oriental temperament, which has a strongly defeatist element in it. … faced by a sudden and unexpected accusation, an Oriental nearly always collapses. And once he has collapsed, his native fatalism prevents him from recovering.”

1

George Bernard Shaw – but I couldn’t resist the picture

I suppose I’ve gone on far too long about the disgraceful attitudes and comments that fill this book. The picture that formed in my mind is of an elderly white male, wallowing in white middle-class privilege, near the end of his writing career, who decides to write about a group of people about whom he knows nothing. Nothing. So he just makes it up to amuse his audience, because, heavens, it’s not like anyone Chinese could ever master English sufficiently to read this book. Chinese people are sub-human, and you can say anything you want about them (in a constantly pompous and lecturing tone) because their feelings don’t matter.  I would have been barely willing to accept this level of pompous ignorance in the context of 1927; it was the general lack of knowledge of the times. In 1957, it’s disgraceful. The author just didn’t bother to find out anything about an entire race of people before he turned them into performing monkeys to amuse his audience.

It’s never crossed my mind before to suggest that a book be banned; I disagree with the whole idea. We need to see the mistakes that have been made in the past so we don’t repeat them, and covering them up allows them to breed in the darkness. But if some enterprising publisher takes on the complete works of John Rhode/Miles Burton, I hope that somehow reprinting this particular volume gets overlooked. This is an ugly, nasty, squalid little book and I hope no one ever reads it again.

*********************************************

ERRATA:

**The day after posting this, Shahrul Hafiz, a Facebook friend in my Golden Age Mysteries group, mentioned that “the name of Ah Lock, Ah Chong, Ah Meng, Ah Mei and others are very common calling name for Chinese people in Malaysia. Their real name maybe Tan Chee Lock, but most would prefer to call Ah Lock or Ah Chee or Chee Lock or in formal situation Mr. Tan. Nothing wrong or uncommon about calling Chinese people, Ah Lock.” So I was clearly wrong on that one, although I will say in my defense two things: one is that I’d never heard of anyone named Ah-anything although I lived for 35 years in Vancouver, which has a huge Asian population, and second … this is more tenuous … that the individuals concerned are said in the novel to have been born in Hong Kong and aren’t from Malaysia.  But those are poor excuses for having been wrong, and I apologize.

I was sufficiently curious to look at whitepages.com; in their 300 million listings f0r North Americans, there are none for “Ah Lock” but two for “Ah Lok”, none for “Chu Shek”, and there is a 101-year-old man in New York named “Lo Fat” (long life to you, sir!). There are, however, enough people whose names are quite close that I can accept that these names are not just syllables that Street pulled out of the air.

I’ve changed how I represented the author’s name here.  His full name was Cecil John Charles Street, and I made that Cecil Street, but he preferred to be known as John Street.

Nothing But the Truth, by John Rhode (1947)

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. 

2772What’s this book about?

Rupert Burtonshaw of Mytton House, a solicitor in the county town of Yarminster, has been hosting his neighbour and client, Henry Watlington, to dinner. Watlington likes his bottle and as the end of the evening approaches, it’s clear that he is in no shape to do anything further that evening. Nevertheless they are discussing Burtonshaw’s objective, that of reconciling the wealthy Watlington with his errant son, Cecil.

Although the hour is late, there’s a knock on the door and a Yarminster policeman is announced, P.C. Fawkes. He’s discovered Watlington’s chauffeur Ellers, drunk in charge of Watlington’s limousine, passed out at the wheel. This is surprising, since Ellers is known to be a teetotaller, but the discovery of the dregs of a bottle of whiskey in his pocket seems to close the case. P.C. Fawkes volunteers to drive the muzzy Mr. Watlington home to Pomfret Hall and then take Ellers into custody, and leaves his bicycle in Burtonshaw’s charge when he does.

RhodeJohn

John Rhode (Maj. Cecil Street)

At Watlington’s own Pomfret Hall the next morning, however, Mr. Watlington is nowhere to be seen, nor is Ellers. Elders staggers into the kitchen early in the morning, covered in earth and leaves and soaking wet. His story is … well, he doesn’t quite know what happened, but he woke up in the woods with a splitting headache lying under some rhododendrons, and staggered home. The limousine and Mr. Watlington have vanished, and P.C. Fawkes is also found to have been mysteriously stupefied (and his cape and cap stolen) the night before.

After a general search and quite a bit of plot entanglement, a “road patrol” employed by the Automobile Association unlocks the door of an A.A. telephone box some fifty miles from Yarminster. The dead body that falls out of the box, with “every bone in his body broken”, starts the plot in motion in earnest, and Superintendent Jimmy Waghorn is assigned to the case. His friend Dr. Priestley, the series detective, takes a more active role than usual.  I’ll slide over the details to preserve your enjoyment, but an investigation of the long-ago history of Yarminster discovers a deeply hidden motive and the correct criminal is finally brought to justice.

Why is this book worth your time?

I don’t discuss the identity of the murderer, but the next section will discuss some things that underlie this book that you may prefer not to know; explanations of some of the puzzling bits in this novel. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

12509894_166481333716809_7684540161629511706_n

The pleasures of a new and prolific author to read!

 

I’ve been reading a lot of John Rhode/Miles Burton novels lately, dozens of them in the past couple of months; they’ve recently come into the public domain in Canada and I’ve found heaps of them at The Internet Archive (archive.org). It’s an interesting privilege to be able to read so much of an author’s work when I’d never encountered much of it before, and I’ve rather been wallowing in the pleasure.

This author is one of the leading lights of the Humdrum School of detective fiction, and I’ve started to identify the limited range of Rhode’s inventive powers that make him a Humdrum. This is not disparaging. As far as I can tell, he knew what he was good at and what made his audience happy, and he wrote that. Not a problem for me.

4158mN5joyL._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_He wrote four or five books a year for decades; I would be more surprised if he had NOT had a couple of basic plot structures that he kept repeating with different situations and characters. He seems to have been fond of mechanical traps and “infernal machine” plots, where someone rigs up a device that kills when the murderer is at a safe and alibied distance. Another one might be paraphrased as “two characters both benefit from someone’s death but no one knows they’re working together.” And then there’s the very common structure that underlies this novel. “Someone from the past has a reason to seek revenge upon the victim and puts together a complicated plot to hide his motive.”

1940s-fashion-for-menThat last structure makes for an interesting novel, but it’s not the kind of thing that a reviewer can usefully talk about. The first third of the novel sets up a situation where most of what you “know” is later proved to be either (a) an incorrect assumption, or (b) an effect produced by the murderer to leave an incorrect impression in your mind. Most of the rest of the book lets you know that, by golly, that murderer certainly was thorough and diligent and created a huge plot to get away with murder. But there’s not much in the way of clues; just finding a different way of looking at the facts. And if I tell you how to look at them, I’ll spoil your pleasure. This book is worth your time, but I can’t really tell you why.  It is a pleasant time-passer that has some clever things in it; it is gentle and sensible and polite, and everyone ends up happily in the end except the murderer, who is sent to the gallows. I liked it and found it pleasant, and in a year I probably won’t be able to tell you a thing about it.

So instead, I’ll talk about why this particular volume interested me in terms of social history. I’ve been thinking about social history a lot with respect to Golden Age detective fiction lately, and I frequently am finding it more diverting than many Humdrum plot structures once you figure out what’s going on. In this type of book, one doesn’t compete with Dr. Priestley to see who can solve the crime first; one sits back and watches Dr. Priestley solve it and enjoys the process. So my mind has plenty of room to think about social history while I’m watching Dr. Priestley at work. 😉

Here, there are three things that struck me as interesting.

  1. The Automobile Association
AA_telephone_box_at_Brancaster_-_Geograph_-_123884

An A.A. box

As I understand it, the Automobile Association maintained a network of “road patrol” people who drove around looking for people with car problems and helping them — if they were members of A.A. They also maintained a network of locked telephone boxes where members could phone for assistance. It’s not clear to me whether these phones could only talk to an A.A. operator or whether they were just regular telephones, but I think the former. Otherwise, people would break into them and make free phone calls (no, not in 1947 they wouldn’t. That way lies anarchy).

UnknownSo when you became a member of A.A., you apparently were issued a key that would allow you to open the door of an A.A. box and phone them for assistance. I was trying to imagine the sheer good fortune that it would take to arrange to have an accident or mechanical trouble within easy walking distance of an A.A. box … hard to say. I’ve read novels where people walk a couple of miles to get to one and request help. It also makes me wonder about the general state of mechanical readiness of the average car in 1947. Did they break down so often that there was need of a huge corporate apparatus to backstop the system? Did no one let strangers use their land lines to call for help? Was this a large expense, or was the price kept quite low and the costs of the system divided among a huge number of users? It’s still in operation in Canada, certainly, but they don’t operate a private telephone system, of course, nor these cute little kiosks.

It also made me think that having a dead body fall out of a locked A.A. box was very transgressive. Not what one wants to find if you’ve already had a flat tire to ruin your day. And there’s an opportunity for an interesting deductive element here; the person who hid the body must have been an A.A. member. Unfortunately that’s never followed up, which makes me think that there must have been a hell of a lot of those keys around.

2. Artificial tanning

724160189_oThere’s a mention in Chapter 13 of:

“… There are, I believe, preparations on the market which produce artificial tanning.” “Quite right, Jimmy,” Hanslet murmured. “We’ve all seen the advertisements: ‘Handsome men are slightly sun-burnt’.”

I was lucky enough to find one of the advertisements, which I’ve reproduced nearby. I always find this interesting because the gradations of skin colour for white males that are considered “handsome” differ wildly from era to era. Sometimes untanned skin is a sign of the wealthiest class and apparently as here sometimes it’s the outdoorsy type who is celebrated. There’s also a growing awareness of skin cancers that changes perceptions into the 21st century. But I wasn’t aware that cosmetic preparations for males were sufficiently well-known in 1947 as to be a matter of common knowledge, and even more surprising to me that someone doesn’t remark how effeminate is the use of such a product. Of course, they’re discussing the impersonation of a South African farmer, not social advancement.

Hashish-Addiction

3. Drug use

In this book there are two drugs used as major plot points: one is hashish and the other is “pentothal” — the “truth drug”. To the best of my knowledge, Rhode got everything about these drugs quite wrong.

He suggests that the smoking of hashish results in about 12 hours of complete befuddlement ending in unconsciousness and retrograde amnesia; having lived in the 70s as a university student, I can tell you that that’s not the case in the slightest. 😉 And may I add that that would be rather a hard sell as what’s been called a recreational drug. There’s very little recreation in that; Rhode regards it as a kind of home-grown sleeping pill.

Similarly Rhode has a very rosy view of the effects of pentothal, in that when Dr. Priestley administers some to the murderer in a glass of whiskey, the result is an hour’s worth of complete willingness to tell the truth about the murder plot, followed by, again, a convenient retrograde amnesia. Um, no, not as far as modern science is concerned.

Pentothal_vintage_package_-_truth_serumBoth the “effects” that Rhode claims for these drugs are really, really convenient for the plot — particularly the use of pentothal, which telescopes the final chapters into a manageable length by completely obviating the need for evidence.

adam eve tree fruitIt’s pretty horrible that, although Dr. Priestley says particularly that the murderer’s utterances are of no evidential value whatever, there’s a general acceptance that the police are entitled to use these revelations because the murderer has forgotten saying them. None of that nasty “fruit of the poisoned tree” in Rhode’s legal system, conveniently. After the murderer babbles the details for an hour, it’s a quick trip to the gallows and the inherent legal issues are forgotten.

There are two interesting points to this. One is that, although John Rhode was well known for getting the details of things right, particularly including complex mechanical and/or chemical traps that are central to some of his novels, he completely failed to get the details of the drugs right here. This probably has to do with the illegality of the drugs concerned; he may have actually seen and touched hashish, since he appears to report its characteristic smell correctly, but he can’t possibly have used it or talked to anyone who had.

tumblr_ni39l2wWLx1sy1cyao1_r1_500Given that he was making it up as he went along, there seems to be a peculiar double standard operating here that is unstated but powerful. Essentially, it’s that the use of drugs by private citizens for recreational purposes is criminal and morally unsound (hashish), but the use of drugs by private citizens for reasons connected with crime-solving (truth serum) contains no moral issues and is, as Dr. Priestley says, “merely a demonstration of the effects of pentothal” upon an unknowing subject. The end apparently justifies the means here. This is a cognitive dissonance that doesn’t appear to have registered in the slightest upon the reader, or author, of 1947.

10366707345My favourite edition

As previously, I read this in an electronic copy I obtained from archive.org; this copy seems to have associated itself with cover art for a book with the same title but from a few years ago, which is annoying and inexplicable. If the copyright situation in your home country permits, you may find the book here.

There really is only one print edition of this book, to the best of my knowledge; the first and last is from Geoffrey Bles, London, in 1947, although it appears to have been reprinted in 1949.  A Near Fine first edition in a Very Good jacket will today set you back just under $100 US once you include postage from New Zealand, but you can have a reading copy without a jacket for perhaps US$40.

Past Offences (March, 2016 collects reviews from the media of 1947)

I am delighted to finally be able to contribute something to the excellent blog, Past Offences, because this month’s group topic is 1947. (I very rarely am thinking sufficiently far in advance to make something like this happen, so this has been a happy serendipity.) You can read a number of reviews of material from 1947 by following links in the comments section here, soon to include my own contribution. I do think this is an excellent idea; you are better able to appreciate fiction of a specific year by considering it in a broader context and this idea of a group topic for a specific year is an excellent one.

 

 

Legacy of Death, by Miles Burton (1960)

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. 

english-country-nursing-homeWhat’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. Continue reading

Beware Your Neighbour, by Miles Burton (1951)

439WARNING: 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?

Hallows Green is a single street in the British city of Barncaster that contains ten houses.  This is a quiet little street that you probably would never enter unless you had business there … upper middle-class people living in fairly nice houses.  There’s a doctor, a lawyer, a retired professor, a retired admiral, a bank manager, a philanthropic widow, an amateur photographer of some renown, two brothers of independent means who live with their families in houses that face each other. The only unusual people there are Mr. and Mrs. Egremont at number 1, who are popularly supposed to be the Prophet and Prophetess of some strange cult.  But no one bothers their neighbours much and the general atmosphere is that of an oasis of quiet in the city.

Welwyn_Garden_City_cul-de-sacOne by one, the inhabitants of Hallows Green begin to receive strange and ominous messages. All are different — some elaborate, some simple. But all these messages refer to death. Before notifying the police, the retired admiral calls in his amateur detective friend Desmond Merrion to see if he can shed light on the baffling warnings that have come to eight of the ten houses.

Before too long, the amateur photographer’s stock of equipment and negatives are burned, with his back yard shed.  Another resident is bashed with a heavy branch that’s been set in the form of a booby trap. Finally, as the police are called in, two residents of a house are found mysteriously dead. Desmond Merrion works with his long-time associate, Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard, to determine an extremely unusual state of affairs and bring the crime home to a surprising criminal.

Why is this worth reading?

Under Canadian copyright law, the enormous backlist of Miles Burton (and John Rhode, both pseudonyms of Cecil J. C. Street) came into the public domain this year. Since Burton/Rhode novels are one of my current interests, I’ve acquired two dozen of them from archive.org and I’m currently in … well, let’s call it hog heaven. 😉  Rhode and Burton novels have been difficult and expensive to acquire for many years and I’ve never had more than a dozen of them pass through my hands, at least that I can recall. Now that I can get them in quantity, I’ve had the opportunity to barely begin to get to know this writer, but so far I’m enjoying what I’m reading.

The ones I’ve recently acquired have mostly been titles from the latter part of Burton’s career like this one. After having gone through a handful of them in a glorious couple of days, I’ve noticed a repetitive plot structure that seems to be frequently, but not always, present. It has to do with a criminal deciding to commit a crime and constructing a bogus situation that will pin the guilt upon some nearby person; the real criminal doesn’t appear until near the end of the novel after the detective notices that some tiny things don’t add up.  I’m happy to say that this is NOT one of those. I found this one the most satisfying of the handful I’ve recently gobbled, and I enjoyed it quite a bit; the criminal is someone at whom the reader has had a chance to look, and I think that’s important. I was also pretty much completely hoodwinked by the plot, which I find enjoyable.  Yes, this book requires some suspension of disbelief, but not more so than many Golden Age mysteries.

There was also some interesting moments of social history, always a great interest of mine in the context of GAD.  Like so much of GAD, the finest of inferences about topics of social history are not always available to a modern audience who have lost the context. It is not quite clear to me why Mrs. Egremont wearing sandals in public is somehow linked to her being … “not our sort, dear,” although I hasten to add that that’s not a direct quote.  There are some lovely moments in the thoughts of an aging philanthropist and worker of good deeds who reflects that she cannot afford to replace her assistant and so the assistant’s budding romance must be nipped in the bud. The precise shades of social distinction between various retired professionals are unspoken but definitely there; apparently retired admirals trump retired lawyers in the leadership sweepstakes.  And the single-minded gentleman who spends his days and nights thinking about photography is given the same kind of amused tolerance as modern Britons give, say, the twitcher (bird-watcher) or the railway anorak (I hope I have those terms correct!).

Oddly enough, I had a weird flash of a very unlikely author for comparison; Mary Roberts Rinehart. MRR did these closed-circle streets very well, but in a completely different way. Her “cul de sac” novels like The Album (1933) focus on heightening tension and a kind of claustrophobic shrinking of the characters’ viewpoints to a smaller and smaller area. Burton’s Hallows Green’s inhabitants, for the most part, are everyday folks with ordinary and fairly happy lives; there are children and servants and a life outside the street. Rinehart’s books focused on gloomy landscapes that produced emotional stress and violence (an old lady is murdered with an axe in The Album). Burton follows a different path, where the happiness of everyday life is interrupted by bizarre and inexplicable events that soon lead to violence. It’s easier for an ordinary person to empathize with the peaceful neighbours of Hallows Green, I think, but I was surprised at the amount of tension that the author managed to induce. You really do want to know who is doing these things, and why.

My favourite edition

I read this in an electronic edition freely available from archive.org and there doesn’t seem to be any “cover art” associated with that. As you can imagine, there haven’t been many editions and this volume seems to have been published pretty much in its Collins first edition (seen above) and then neglected. So my favourite edition thus far is the one I got freely from archive.org, now that it’s January 2016 and it’s in the public domain in Canada and Australia.  I know this situation is different in the United States and Great Britain and it may not be legal for you to obtain this free e-book; please proceed accordingly.

With that in mind, I note that there actually is a 2013 trade paperback edition which is spelled Beware Your Neighbor available. I do not believe that this company has the legal right to publish that book and so I won’t enable you to find it. The title is misspelled, the cover is ugly, and, frankly, the description of the book is completely incorrect in every detail. If you’re going to commit an act of literary piracy disrespectful of the author’s heirs, you should at least do it with a little class.

 

Men Die At Cyprus Lodge, by John Rhode (1943)

3034156528WARNING: 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 other significant details are not revealed. This book is very rare and it is possible that you may never see a copy in your lifetime; you may feel that information about a book you’ll never be able to read is worth any potential spoiling of your enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

The little village of Troutwich is crowded with war workers connected with a training base on its outskirts, but no one ever seems to want to rent Cyprus Lodge until Colonel and Mrs. Guestwick, bombed-out Londoners, find it suitable. The rumours of ghosts are nonsense, of course, everyone agrees. A middle-aged pork butcher died there in the last century, but people who report hearing the jingling of the coins in his pockets or the sound of his wooden garden clogs echoing off the tiled floor are considered, at least for public consumption, to be delusional. The house’s history includes having been used as a house of ill repute, at least until the police shut it down, and then a homeopathic doctor took the place and lasted two years — until he was found dead in the dining room, poisoned by taking aconite. He wasn’t well known in the village, and it’s considered to have been an unexplained suicide.

As the Colonel and his household are about to move in, Troutwich is receiving official scrutiny because there appears to be enemy espionage going on in the village; events at what is hinted to be more than a simple training camp are being passed to the enemy on a regular basis. Series detective Jimmy Waghorn (here using the pseudonym James Walters and purporting to be from the Ministry of Coordination) comes to investigate the espionage, and stands by as the local constabulary look through the empty house and find nothing.

4740105709However, local squire Sir Philip Briningham has made a hobby of investigating haunted houses. When the Guestwicks and their servants report hearing the ghostly clogs and jingling coins, they think it’s some kind of joke. But when a mysterious voice says “Beware of the Monk’s Hood,” they seek official help. Sir Philip is asked to take a hand and is anxious to assist with the local haunted house. Monkshood, the officials know, is the source plant for aconite, so perhaps this has something to do with the homeopath’s suicide. Sir Philip determines that he’ll spend the night in the house alone. When he does so, all the spooky effects obligingly appear, but in the light of day, he and the officials realize that the production of the effects appears to be connected with a sealed-off cupboard. A small group assembles to open the cupboard and, sure enough, the investigators discover a mysterious panel which, when opened, reveals a grinning skull. As Sir Philip reaches in and pulls on the skull to remove it, a group of sharp objects fall from the top of the recess. One of them stabs Sir Philip in the wrist — and he dies almost immediately of aconite poisoning.

The modern reader will, of course, recognize the basic Scooby-Doo plot; someone is creating these supernatural effects for a purpose, and another plot twist has generated the underlying motive. With the occasional assistance of Dr. Priestley and Superintendent Hanslet, Jimmy Waghorn investigates the history of the house and many of the inhabitants of the village, including local shopkeepers and the late Sir Philip’s family. Then there’s another murder using aconite in the vicinity of the spooky old house. Although Jimmy gets it wrong, events unfold in such a way that the true engineer of the plot is revealed in a surprising conclusion. In the final chapter, the senior series detective Dr. Priestley explains why his occasional comments were misinterpreted and tells Jimmy why he should have brought the crimes home to the real criminal.

2759Why is this worth reading?

Recently I remarked that John Rhode (a pseudonym of Major Cecil Street, who also published extensively as Miles Burton) and E. C. R. Lorac were the two Golden Age detective writers most unjustly overlooked by modern-day publishers, and a comprehensive reprinting is certainly in order. Both have very large backlists — essential to the publisher who wishes to entice a paperback audience with a large plot of undiscovered new ground. Major Street published four novels in 1943 alone and more than 140 titles in total; an astonishingly large body of work.

Curtis Evans devoted a huge amount of work and thought to Maj. Street’s writing in his  Masters of the ‘Humdrum‘ Mystery; if you really want to know everything there is to know about John Rhode, both the man and his work, that volume is the place to start and probably finish. But just to hit the high spots; Julian Symons, in his volume (Bloody Murder) looking at the history of detective fiction, classified certain early writers as “Humdrums” — because their focus was the puzzle plot, rather than meeting Symons’ preference for “stylish writing and explorations of character, setting and theme”. In 1972 when first published, Symons’ opinion led critical thought. However, today the wheel has spun and many critics and literary historians are today finding that John Rhode and the rest of the Humdrums did precisely what they set out to do and did it well.  We are now learning that Symons may not have delved very deeply into a school of writing that he simply didn’t like, and that there is plenty of interest in these books about the social context against which they are set, and even the occasional piece of artistic writing. If you’re interested in the Golden Age of Detection, John Rhode is certainly worth investigating.

That being said, this novel is not excellent but merely competent and intelligent. I think my readers will agree that the story hook is very strong. Ghostly hugger-mugger in a spooky house is music to the ears of the GAD aficionado, since we all know that the detectives will ultimately reveal that a nefarious character has been producing supernatural effects in order to keep people away from some sort of criminal activity. Scooby-Doo, Shaggy and the rest of the Mystery Machine gang solved that crime many times, unmasking kindly old storekeeper Mr. Hooper as the Glowing Ghost who was trying to keep the uranium mine all to himself, or whatever. The stakes here are heightened by the fact that nosy people don’t just run away screaming and phone Daphne and Velma for help, they fall down dead from aconite poisoning.  When Sir Philip exposes the fakery but dies in the process, the reader’s attention is firmly locked in place; this unexpected development kicks the interest up a notch.

That’s where everything pretty much grinds to a halt, though. Jimmy Waghorn investigates, certainly, and meets a wide range of characters connected with the late Sir Philip and the town’s tradespeople and police officers. We learn the details of how information is casually mentioned in the local pub by off-duty servicemen, and Jimmy realizes — or is told by higher authorities — that the information must be being transmitted somehow to a person who takes it to Ireland, whereupon it makes its way to Germany. (We never quite get the details of this; the author merely invokes “security” and saves himself the trouble of thinking something up.) But nothing much really happens until a second murder, and Jimmy Waghorn is still completely baffled. The astute reader, meanwhile, testing his/her wits against those of the investigators, will have realized the obvious investigatory course for the officials, which is twofold. They should follow anyone who sets foot anywhere near Cyprus Lodge and investigate them intensively, and meanwhile they should be looking into the history of everyone who’s had anything to do with the place since the death of the original pork butcher. Had they done so, this book would have been much more brief and simple.

2760Apparently the lack of investigatory power has to do with the war, of course. And this book has a constant element of the war as a background — easy to understand for a book that was published in 1943. The details range from small to large. For instance, one hard-working shopkeeper re-uses a piece of glass and constructs a frame for it out of scrap wood, to replace the smashed window of his tobacco shop, because a large pane of glass simply cannot be had in wartime England. A pub keeper mentions that although his customer base is thriving due to the nearby training base, he isn’t profiting unduly because he’s only allowed a certain amount of beer per month to serve all his customers, and so he must balance the needs of the soldiers against those of his long-time customers.  The ubiquitous blackout curtains prevent people from seeing any mysterious figures moving around in the dead of night. And everyone accepts the presence of Jimmy Waghorn because he says he’s with the Ministry of Coordination; if the Ministry were to open a small facility in Troutwich, Cyprus Lodge would be ideal, and so he can poke through the house to his heart’s content. There is a secondary plot strand, wherein the late Sir Philip’s relatives are suspects because they inherit his estate.  The heir is maintaining his manor as an open house for the officer class of the training base because his father would have wanted it that way (and, of course, this alerts the reader to the possibility that the espionage originates in the manor house as the officers play billiards and casually talk about the day’s events).

But the espionage plot has the defects of its virtues. If the war permeates the fabric of the village to such an extent, then the information leaks must be more crucial; surely they can spare a couple of police officers from patrolling for cracks of light from blackout curtains to keep an eye on people surreptitiously dodging in and out of Cyprus Lodge. And if the appropriate Ministry truly wanted to find out the trail of the information leaks, they surely would have asked Dr. Priestley to take a more active role, rather than merely bringing in Jimmy Waghorn, a complete doofus, on a part-time basis. (At one point near the finale, Jimmy actually thinks casually that if he runs into the individual who turns out to be the murderer in the course of some late-night investigations, he’s going to take that person into his confidence so that the real murderer can be identified. D’oh!) Either the espionage is important or it’s not. For the purposes of keeping the novel afloat, it seems to be only important so far as it baffles Jimmy and forms the background for Act II up to the midpoint of Act III. The way Dr. Priestley talks in the final chapter, he would have solved the murders in about 20 minutes after he arrived, by focusing official attention on the correct aspects of everyone’s history and background. I agree, and that just points out that Act II and most of Act III for this novel are padded like a Canadian winter jacket.

This is not a terrible idea, considering that John Rhode is a writer who knows how to hold an audience. The characterization is subtle but good. Particularly noteworthy is a local tobacconist  who’s a member of a religious cult concerned with the Vision of the Great Prophet. Such cults are commonplace in GAD novels (off the top of my head, I can think of novels by Ngaio Marsh, Elizabeth Daly, Ellery Queen and Anthony Boucher that feature some variation on the theme) and this one is just as loony-tunes as the rest. The tobacconist, however, is the only really distinctive character; everyone else is average and everyday, going about their daily business and contributing to the war effort as best they can. But John Rhode was good at portraying this kind of person, especially military men. They may be reserved in demeanour, but they are consistent, honourable and stiff-upper-lipped Englishmen. Oddly, there are almost no female characters in this novel. I haven’t managed to read enough of Rhode’s work to know if this is a commonplace thing or unusual, but it’s worth noting. Dr. Priestley himself is very nearly completely offstage for the entire novel, popping up a couple of times to say enigmatic things and then to be a complete pain in the ass in the final chapter, waggling his finger and saying, tsk, tsk, you should have listened to me more carefully. Apparently Rhode thinks we know him sufficiently well from other novels; I didn’t, but that’s what seems to be being conveyed here.

I think Rhode’s real skill in this novel is with dialogue, which is not something that often calls itself to my attention. There are subtle differences in the language used by various characters that let you know from what stratum of society they come; really well done here. Other writers, particularly Dorothy L. Sayers, make the speech of members of the lower classes that of illiterate bumpkins with what a dear friend of mine, the late mystery writer Greg Kramer, used to call “ha’penny-tuppenny fortnight come Michaelmas” dialogue. But here the speech patterns of everyone concerned are not all that different. Shopkeepers, indeed, seem upwardly mobile — as though they’re trying to improve themselves — and the lords of the manors are more egalitarian. Perhaps this is a wartime thing, and it makes analysis difficult, but it’s more true to life, I think.

For the pleasure of the reading public, particularly my friends who enjoy good Golden Age of Detection work, I certainly hope John Rhode comes back into print soon. I have the feeling that if it were possible for me to read 60 or 70 of his novels, it may well be that I would draw different conclusions about the excellence of this particular volume. With what little I know, and my experience with this kind of novel, I think I’d give this one a B+ and look for better work from the same author.

My favourite edition

The illustration at the top of this post is the cover of Collins White Circle Canada #274; I used my own copy of this book, in much better condition, as the basis for this review. Although I’ve always had a certain fondness for the “green ghost” Crime club edition pictured here, the CWCC edition is delightfully — well, I think the word is “lurid”. The background is a greyish shade of mustard, which makes the black/green cypress trees and touches of dusty brick red in the house stand out. The publishers wanted this to scream off the shelves, and it certainly does. My own copy is in Very Good condition, holding together physically better than is often the case with CWCC books, and if I were to sell it — which I have no plans to do, since it’s so scarce — I think I’d price it at $60 to $75.

Of the nine copies today available on ABEBooks, the cheapest is an ex-library copy of CWCC #274 at $28 plus shipping, fit only for reading or filling a hole in a run of John Rhode, and a first edition in jacket will set you back more than $600. Like so much of Rhode, this is a rare and expensive book in any condition and any edition.

Death at Dyke’s Corner, by E. C. R. Lorac (1940)

UnknownWARNING: 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 other significant details are not revealed. This book is very rare and it is possible that you may never see a copy in your lifetime; you may feel that information about a book you’ll never able to read is worth any potential spoiling of your enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

11831756_10207661356081152_1492410585426506123_nWhat’s this book about?

Medical student Steven Langston and barrister Roland Straynge are driving through an exceptionally rainy night, returning to London after a Hunt Ball. When they are navigating a double hairpin turn, they are blinded by the lights of an oncoming lorry as they realize there is a motionless car immediately ahead that is standing in the worst possible place for it to be. With the help of exceptionally good driving by all concerned, the unavoidable crash is not very serious; Langston and Straynge and the lorry driver escape shaken but uninjured, but soon find a dead man at the wheel of the wrecked Daimler. Except that the late Morton Conyers was dead before the crash, and appears to have died from carbon monoxide inhalation.

The late Mr. Conyers is the principal of a very successful company called John Home & Co. — and it will save the modern reader time and effort to think of this company as equivalent to Walmart. When John Home sets up shop in a village, it sells everything and anything, and drives most local merchants out of business. Thus Conyers himself is the object of great hatred among the small businesspeople of the villages into which his company expands. The personal life of the deceased is also tumultuous; his elegant and long-suffering wife has managed to keep quiet about her husband’s many sexual infidelities among women of the lower classes, but her son Lewis has harboured a burning resentment for many years. When they learn of the death, there is a brief but  unusually frank exchange between mother and son. Lewis learns almost immediately that his late father’s valet, the ferret-like Strake, has been eavesdropping when Strake makes a crude attempt to blackmail Lewis; Lewis strikes him to the ground in fury and puts him in the hospital. The Conyers’ chauffeur is also resentful of his late employer and had recently given his notice; suspicion also falls on him since it seems as though the Daimler had been tampered with in order to generate a fatal dose of carbon monoxide.

1911_Daimler_Landaulette_crashedInspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is called in and immediately begins to investigate not only the family but the economics of the local market town of Strode. From the local squire, Colonel Merryl (and his beautiful daughter Anne) they learn of the social context in which the Conyers family operates. Local opinion of Mr. Conyers is that he was an upstart tradesman and a dirty dog who would not be admitted to the social circles of the upper classes, despite his great wealth; most people felt a little sorry for the innocent Mrs. Conyers and her son, whom Anne describes as “a nicely behaved young man with a pleasant voice and an inferiority complex”), but they were regrettably tarred with the same brush as the father.

Opinions in the village are equally strong since it has been learned that Conyers planned to open a branch of John Home in the village. Macdonald interviews the local chemist, the butcher, and other smallholders in the ancient village; since it seems likely they were about to be driven out of business, they were of course resentful and angry. Opposition seems to be led by a nasty local moneylender, Shenton, who boasts that he has managed to acquire property such that Conyers’s plans to open in the Market Square would be frustrated; Shenton wants to keep many of the local businessmen under his extortionate thumb as he always has. But was Conyers out driving the evening of his death to make a secret cash deal with someone for a key piece of property? Some local businessmen were apparently resigned to progress … many were not. And none of the villagers were prepared to put up with Conyers’s buying of the favours of foolish young local women with presents of expensive jewelry.

Lacock_01As the investigation progresses, Macdonald realizes that local opinion is that Lewis Conyers murdered his father, but Lewis appears to have an alibi of sorts. Apparently he worships Anne Merryl from afar and, the night of the accident, was mooning about hoping to have a brief word with her at the Hunt Ball (from which the first-chapter drivers were returning, and at which Lewis would not have been welcome). The villagers, however, seem to think that the police are stalling on arresting Lewis, whom they believe is obviously guilty. Emotions in the village begin to run high and Lewis Conyers is attacked by an unknown party and seriously injured.

bourton5Macdonald has now got a pretty good idea of who committed the murder, based on some perceptive observations of tiny physical clues that will probably have escaped the reader. But emotions are running high and many of the villagers now seem to think the unpleasant Shenton is the guilty party. When one village suspect attempts to commit suicide, possibly prompted by Shenton’s apparent impersonation of a police officer, things come to a head. Shenton is taken into custody and is later released, swearing revenge upon the police; the villagers are agog and a little group of vigilantes goes to Shenton’s house to carry out some impromptu investigations in a threatening manner. But Shenton has a store of petrol that gets ignited. One of the little group of villagers dies horribly in the burning building and the fire threatens to spread to the entire village; all the villagers are running around madly rescuing their relations and their possessions. Meanwhile Macdonald is told that Shenton has escaped the fire and the police officer begins to track him through the village; there is an exceptionally tense finish as the two men are locked in a tiny room at the back of a shop as the fire races through the village. But Macdonald breaks free and arrests the murderer, whose identity will probably be a complete surprise to the reader. In the final chapter everything is explained to the local police and the Justice of the Peace — and of course the reader.

6129Why is this worth reading?

I’m starting to think that E. C. R. Lorac, aka Carol Carnac (pseudonyms for Edith Caroline Rivett, about whose personal life not much is known, and to whom I’ll refer here as ECR) is the Golden Age mystery writer who has been most unjustly neglected by the passage of time (although John Rhode/Miles Burton is a close second). Other writers have a few of their novels that have survived the years, and get the occasional reprint. For instance, one or two of Anthony Berkeley‘s tours de force like The Poisoned Chocolates Case continue to remain in print, and when a reader discovers this great book, s/he has a hint that tracking down other Berkeley titles will be worthwhile.

But ECR’s work suffers from two problems; one is that every single volume of her more than 70 titles is scarce, and thus difficult and expensive to obtain (barring a few very late works of no great excellence that you may find occasionally in a secondhand book store), and the other is that there is no single work that stands out and that has been cherished by critics as her finest work. They’re all good, but none of them seems to be great. (I like to call an author like this a first-rate second-rate writer. Not famous, but a really satisfying writer of good books.) ECR’s scarcity and relative obscurity has resulted in many aficionados of the Golden Age of Detection missing out on some very fine mysteries, and I for one would love to see that change. In the meantime, every copy available is frequently snapped up by a collector who cherishes it. And some are so rare that it is speculated that fewer than ten copies exist.

019This particular volume is satisfying and delightful, for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a damn good mystery. The solution is intelligent and surprising and you will have the uncommon experience at the end of thinking, “Oh, I should have seen THAT!” ECR does an excellent job of balancing at least two major plot trails, those of the victim’s family and those of his economic victims. It’s rare that a reader enters Act III of a typical mystery without having eliminated at least one major plot trail — here, everything is in play.  Unless you are paying an exceptional amount of attention, you will be fooled; I freely confess I was, and I enjoyed that experience.

The characterization is excellent. Other volumes of ECR I’ve read tend to focus on the upper classes and merely sketch in the “servants and villagers” who provide information to the plot but nothing really important to the novel. Here, we’re dealing with real people. The shopkeepers are quirky and realistic. ECR has done a good job here on making morally unsound characters like the valet and the moneylender three-dimensional and not merely cardboard characters who kick the occasional puppy to demonstrate their complete wickedness.

The flow of this novel is first-rate. ECR’s works occasionally suffer from their slow deliberate pace (as I noticed in my look at another ECR volume, Still Waters, where virtually nothing actually happens in the action of the novel). This volume starts with excitement, lets you get interested in the victim’s family issues, then switches to the larger viewpoint of the village resisting change and starts to build a double line of tension. And I suspect few ECR stories build to such an exciting climax as a manhunt through a burning village that finishes up in the near-death of the detective and the principal suspect and then a final surprise twist in the ending. This novel is really well constructed and built.

The writing, as usual, is excellent. ECR has a good touch with dialogue that displays character; people speak in the way that reveals who they are, but it feels more natural than cliched. And the author’s love of the countryside is apparent here. There are no long rambles through farmland and countryside, as sometimes happens in her novels to slow things down for a moment while she gives you the feel of the land; this is because, as seems to be a bit unusual for ECR, nobody in this book is motivated by their love of the land and thus there is no occasion for anyone to get all lyrical about it. But there’s enough here that we can see the little maze of twisted streets and Tudor-era shops and outbuildings that make up this so-typical ancient village — and we understand what’s going on when Macdonald is racing through its streets and alleys after his suspect.

I have to say that the part I most enjoyed here, though, was what I think of as social context. That’s one of the reasons that Golden Age mysteries are so interesting to me — the chance to find out about a way of life that was commonplace not too many years before I was born, but has its bases and mores rooted in systems of social class and interaction that are completely foreign to the modern day. It is not often done as well here as ECR provides, mostly because many Golden Age writers are standing in a position of agreeing, pretty much, with the upper classes. In this volume we find out how people feel about the potential destruction of the traditional village way of life by the encroachment of modern methods of trade and commerce. This means that the villagers will have access to stylish clothing and a wider range of food and entertainment, to the great dismay of the upper classes who think such things are vulgar and unsuitable for their inferiors. They will also be able to have jobs working in stores rather than being destined for domestic service and work on the land.

The thing that I thought was really delightful about this book’s approach to the social context was made plain by the squire’s daughter, Anne Merryl. When her father begins to whinge about how vulgar and unsuitable it is that the village will be “spoiled” by the economic development inherent in the building of a John Home store in the village, she refutes him. She speaks of her desire to do something useful and earn money by perhaps working at the store as a beauty consultant or a fashion advisor — to the horror of her parents. But she compounds that horror. When her parents remonstrate with her for buying a delicious cake from a not-too-distant John Home store, since it takes business away from local tradespeople, she faces up to them. “If our own tradespeople would sell cakes like this, I wouldn’t go to John Home’s. In Laing’s Baker in Strand you can buy three cakes. One is rich fruit. Awful. One is seed cake. Awfuller. One is Maderia. [sic] Awfullest. Then there are little sponge cakes with pink, green or white icing. I’ve eaten them since I was three.  I never want to see them again.” Her parents remind her that the local tradespeople will be squeezed out — “decent folk with a tradition all their own, all pushed out to make room for John Home”. Anne angrily reminds them of the improved social conditions for staff in the John Home stores as opposed to being bullied by the local tradespeople in the old-fashioned way, and speaks forcefully about “Manton the butcher — another horror. Look at his shop in summer. Flies all over the meat and no cold storage.” Another character remarks about “The small trader, owning his own shop, was a monopolist, and he has underpaid his employees and exploited the necessities of the country folk who had to buy their goods at his shop or go without. Independence has often been used as a cloak to inefficiency, and unwillingness to oblige, and economic unsoundness.”

Now, this is something you just don’t see in many works of Golden Age detective fiction. Bucolic “Mrs. Bumble who runs the village shop” is generally portrayed as merely the centre of gossip and the occasional bit of background information about potential suspects — but the unspoken assumption is generally that her store has everything the locals need at fair prices. (Think about why Miss Marple in At Bertram’s Hotel needs to travel to London to visit the Army and Navy Stores.) ECR has put her finger on the oncoming wave of progress that will shortly sweep away this antiquated lifestyle, but the really interesting part to me is that ECR is saying the villagers themselves knew it was coming and didn’t know how to deal with it. There’s a recent thriller by the excellent John Sandford (Shock Wave) that addresses the same issues, when a thinly disguised version of Walmart is moving into a small Minnesota town, and honestly, there’s not much difference between the two sets of reactions. But many Golden Age mysteries merely sketch in this issue by having the local squire bemoan the advent of progress, or Lady Poobah remark that it’s SO hard to get housemaids these days. ECR gives us both sides of the coin and it’s both fascinating and surprising.  It’s also rather sobering to think that when the village burns down at the end, it will merely make it more likely that John Home will clear the burned sites and build a modern store immediately.

To sum up — good writing, good plotting, great social context, interesting characterization, and a clever and difficult mystery. They don’t write ’em like that any more, and for the life of me I can’t think of why we can’t get our hands on these.

My favourite edition

The illustration at the top of this post is the cover of Collins White Circle Canada nn#30 — this is “unnumbered #30” from the first year of this company’s publications, 1942. Another way of describing this, based on internal evidence bound into the book, is “C1”. (I can’t confirm this because my copy is, paradoxically, too tight to show this identifier. But I accept this assertion because it’s shared by a number of knowledgeable individuals.) An experienced dealer in Collins White Circle Canada cites it as “Very rare” and suggests that 20 to 50 copies are estimated to still exist. My copy (not the one depicted here), in reasonable condition (VG) with a good binding, is missing a small piece of the spine at the bottom (essentially the word “Lorac”). I think it might bring $60 to $70 at auction but, believe me, it’s not leaving my hands; it’s irreplaceable. This is the only paperback edition (no, it’s not, see below); as of today, there are no copies of the first edition available on AbeBooks. Similar first editions are trading at a base level of $500 US! So this is my favourite edition mostly because it’s the only one I’ve ever seen or I’m ever likely to see.

(Later the same day as this review was published, I learned that there is a Crime Club paperback of this novel; it’s still scarce, just not AS scarce as I’d thought. My thanks to my Facebook friend and fellow GAD aficionado Louise Davis who generously provided the information and a photograph of a book from her collection — second picture from the top.)

200 authors I would recommend (Part 3)

Another ten authors whose work I’d recommend. You’ll find Part 1 that explains this list here; the immediately previous article, Part 2, is here; the next piece, Part 4, is found here.

1339239828921.  Brean, Herbert

This author only wrote a handful of books, but all seven are worth your time. Wilders Walk Away is a spooky tale about the Wilder family, who has this funny habit of walking out of the house never to be seen again. Supernatural shenanigans not far off the approach of John Dickson Carr, where everything is resolved un-supernaturally at the end. Really classic American detective fiction, well-written and smart, and frequently with a strong flavour of what I’ll call “Americana”; Brean takes the flavour of the English village mystery and transplants it to the US very successfully. The Traces of Brillhart is an interesting mystery that used to make my life hell; a paperback publisher had mistakenly attributed it to Carr in the back pages of the book and every so often someone would come in and insist that this was the last Carr on their list to track down and read. I hate disappointing a Carr fan!

100151127322. Brett, Simon

I first came to appreciate Simon Brett through his very funny series about hard-drinking second-rate actor Charles Paris, who is constantly hard up and wondering where his next bottle of Bell’s whisky is coming from. Brett takes his protagonist through murder plots set against nearly every type of acting job, from crummy rep theatres to radio drama to cheesy horror films, all with a knowing wink and a great deal of sympathy for the long-suffering Mr. Paris. Lately Brett’s very active writing career has branched out into three other series; not my all-time favourites but still worth a read. Brett is one of the few writers who, for me, successfully balances light humour with murder.

2700481368_178b0a546623. Brown, Fredric

It’s always astounding to me that an author can find success in both the mystery and science fiction fields; when you couple it with a talent for writing great short stories and superb work at the novel length, you have a recipe for great success. Unfortunately the hard-drinking Mr. Brown never found great financial success in his lifetime; rather like Philip K. Dick, he’s more esteemed today than when he was alive. Brown has the ability to convey seedy and disreputable and poverty-stricken backgrounds wonderfully well — carnivals and cheap printing operations and sad rooming houses. You can just about hear the sad jazz score in the background. His most successful novel is probably The Screaming Mimi, which was made into a film, but Brown-lovers esteem the Ed and Am Hunter series most highly. Start with The Fabulous Clipjoint and be prepared to not put it down till it’s finished — it’s that good. Be warned; if you want to actually own physical copies of his books, it’s likely to cost you a small fortune.

089733033124. Bruce, Leo

Leo Bruce is the mystery pseudonym of Rupert Croft-Cooke, who actually spent time in prison because of his homosexuality (see the Wikipedia article here). His Sergeant Beef mysteries are broadly amusing and still excellent puzzle mysteries; there’s a strong flavour of parody. His best known Beef novel, Case for Three Detectives, features the beer-swilling detective beating out thinly-disguised portraits of Peter Wimsey, Hercule Poirot and Father Brown to the solution. The series featuring acerbic schoolmaster Carolus Deene is much longer and was less successful towards the end of the author’s career, as frequently happens, but there are more than enough good ones from the 50s and 60s to keep the reader of classic British puzzle mysteries happy. Bruce is a sadly overlooked writer who deserves a revival; his writing is excellent, his plotting is first-rate and his general approach is classic.

071235716525. Bude, John

John Bude is another classic British mystery writer overdue for a revival and I’m happy to say that his first novel, The Lake District Murder, is now back in print and gaining him a generation of new fans. I haven’t read The Cornish Coast Mystery but it too is easily available now. Both will serve as excellent introductions to this author’s many novels, which I found delicate and sensible, without too much blood and thunder; rather like the Humdrum school exemplified by Freeman Wills Crofts. When I was searching them out, these novels were rare and expensive; they were worth savouring as well-written examples of the classic English mystery. Humdrum expert Curtis Evans refers to Bude (in the comments below the linked article) as a “competent third-stringer”; I might be a little more generous. Perhaps it’s merely scarcity that prompts me to recommend him but I think you’ll enjoy his books.

Wycliffe and the Three-Toed Pussy26. Burley, W. J.

Burley is best known as the author of the Inspector Wycliffe (WICK-liff) mysteries set in the British West Country, which became the basis for an interesting television programme that my American friends possibly won’t have seen. When you see the television episodes, you realize that the amazing countryside is indeed a strong underpinning of the books; without that knowledge, they’re merely above-average Scotland Yard mysteries. I also enjoyed the two early novels about amateur detective Henry Pym, including Death In Willow Pattern, but you’ll find it much easier to acquire a handful of the 22 Wycliffe novels and settle in for a relaxing weekend.

murder md27. Burton, Miles

Miles Burton is actually a major pseudonym of the prolific Cecil Street, who is probably better known as mystery writer John Rhode. I wanted to recommend both names (you’ll find John Rhode listed later in this series) because the author’s work deserves to be better known. I have to confess I haven’t read many Miles Burton novels, but the few that have passed through my hands have been uniformly interesting. I recommend Murder, M.D. and Death Takes The Living from personal knowledge as being excellent, and A Smell of Smoke has many points of interest. I note here that Ramble House Publishers have brought a couple of Burton titles back into print in recent years, as has a publisher called Black Curtain Press. I must say that I’m not certain that Black Curtain has permission to reprint these titles; if respect for copyright is as important to you as it should be, you may wish to investigate before you purchase.

51HQ--9M8bL28. Carlson, P. M.

P. M. (Pat) Carlson deserves to be much better known for the eight-volume Maggie Ryan series of mysteries (there are others from this writer but I haven’t managed to read them). I’ve read bunches and bunches of “spunky but loveable young woman takes an amateur hand at solving mysteries” and rarely have I found it better done than this series. Carlson knows what she’s talking about in terms of academic backgrounds — Murder is Academic and Murder is Pathological are, to my certain knowledge, accurate as all get-out, and it’s nice to see these settings portrayed by someone who knows them. (Murder is Academic will absolutely delight the professorial types on your Xmas list; guaranteed.) The backgrounds are interesting, the characters are unusual but not outré, and have depth; the mysteries are clever, and the writing is fine. One of the few times when a “spunky but loveable” character doesn’t make me want to throw the book across the room.

funeral29. Carnac, Carol

Another instance of a great author (Edith C. Rivett) being published under two names, both of which are worth looking for; you’ll find E. C. R. Lorac further down this list.  And another instance where I have to recommend you try to find these books even though I haven’t managed to read all of them myself; Carnac/Lorac novels are scarce, sought-after, and expensive — but for good reason. I really enjoyed A Policeman at the Door and It’s Her Own Funeral, and every other Inspector Rivers/Inspector Ryvet novel I’ve ever managed to find. Classic British detection at its best; an undercurrent of sly humour and a strong knowledge of human behaviour coupled with solid writing make these books very worth finding.

three-coffins30. Carr, John Dickson

There isn’t much I can say about John Dickson Carr if you haven’t found your way to him already; I’m just going to hit the high points. He’s one of the most famous — justly famous — mystery writers of all time. You’ll also find his major pseudonym, Carter Dickson, further down his list; these are the two faces of an absolute Grand Master of mystery. JDC is the master of the locked-room mystery, and my Golden Age Detection Facebook group has spent hours discussing which of his many, many books is the best. Carr as Carr writes mostly about Dr. Gideon Fell, an elderly lexicographer who unerringly puzzles out how murders were committed in impossible circumstances, and a smaller series about juge d’instruction Henri Bencolin. Everything with Carr’s name on it is worth reading (there are a few clunkers at the very end of a long and honourable career, but even those are worth your time). Carr knew how to write melodramatic mystery; not much on characterization, and a bit sexist at a time when that was more acceptable, but holy moly the man could plot mysteries. He’s well known for introducing supernatural elements which turn out to be necessary to the down-to-earth murderer’s plotting. The Three Coffins has a huge reputation as one of the best locked-room mysteries of all time (and stops for a chapter to explain the mechanics of the locked-room mystery). I like to recommend some lesser-known minor* novels as being good places to start, notably The Sleeping Sphinx, He Who Whispers, and To Wake the Dead. Wherever you begin with Carr, I trust you’ll acquire the taste for everything he ever wrote.

(*Corrected on the date of publication; my friend Xavier Lechard is correct, He Who Whispers isn’t “minor”, it’s merely lesser known.)

Death Takes the Living, as by Miles Burton (1949)

Death Takes the Living, as by Miles Burton (1949)

burtontakesAuthor:

“Miles Burton” is one of the two major pseudonyms of Cecil John Charles Street, MC, OBE.  John Rhode is perhaps his best-known pseudonym, under which he wrote about forensic scientist Dr. Priestly, and he also wrote as Cecil Waye. As Miles Burton, the series characters are Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion.

Well-known critic and author Julian Symons called this author “a prominent member of the Humdrum school of detective fiction”; “Humdrum” is a label applied to a group of writers who were thought (at least by Symons) to be competent but relatively boring. For a much more nuanced and complete assessment, I’ll refer you to a fellow Golden Age Mystery blogger who is probably the world’s expert on Street’s work: Mr. Curtis Evans. Mr. Evans’s assessment of Street’s work can be read in this fascinating volume, and I encourage you to purchase a copy for yourself; he reviews a number of other such novels at his very interesting blog, The Passing Tramp, and I also recommend that to your attention.  Mr. Evans reviews other Miles Burton/John Rhode novels in his blog but not this one. He has given a great deal of time and effort to understanding Major Street and his work (as well as that of Freeman Wills Crofts and A.W. Stewart, who wrote as J.J. Connington; I’ve reviewed a Connington novel here). So if you’re looking for in-depth insight about these writers, start with Mr. Evans’s work. (And it’s from his blog that I’ve lifted the photograph of Street you’ll see in this post; my apologies, but that face was just irresistible.) As Mr. Evans elsewhere notes, Street had a huge output in his lifetime; about 143 mysteries in 38 years. Perhaps it is this prolific quality that encourages critics to view his work as formulaic work, churned out at the rate of about four novels a year. I confess that before I encountered his work in some depth, I merely absorbed the wisdom of other critics who dismissed the entire Humdrum school, but Curtis Evans’s enthusiasm and scholarship have led me to approach these novels with a fresh eye.

c-j-c-streetPublication Data:

The first edition is Collins Crime Club, 1949. This volume was also published as The Disappearing Parson in the U.S., but I am unable to authoritatively confirm a date; judging by the cover art, which you will see below, it’s at about the same time. (I have a knowledgeable comment, below, that says it’s Dodd, Mead 1949; I believe him.) There do not appear to have been any paperback editions about which I can find any information; there is cover art for something which might be a trade edition (depicted below), but it may also be merely the cover for a publication-on-demand version. (See the comments; I was more correct than I realized.)

It is my practice to make the first illustration in a post the cover of the edition which I actually used for the review. In this case I found the book online here, at Blackmask Online (Munseys.com), and thus was unable to do so. Munseys asks me to say that the book is available for noncommercial use under CC 3.0 and I am happy to do so. I am indebted to ClassicCrimeFiction.com for the cover art of the first edition you will see here. Classic Crime Fiction is an excellent bookseller whose holdings include many scarce mysteries, with a strong focus on British writers. The site is informative and useful and I recommend it to your attention, especially if you are looking for a particular volume you’ve been unable to find elsewhere. I haven’t troubled to obtain their permission to show you the cover art; I trust that my attempt at steering you to them for your purchases will allow them to forgive my minor misuse of their property. Representations of the jacket art for this volume are hard to come by and they have just about the only one available.

51KUBLZkPLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_About this book:

Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read WILL discuss in explicit terms the solution to this murder mystery. Please read no further if you wish to preserve your ignorance of its details. You will also probably find here discussions of the content of other murder mysteries, perhaps by other authors, and a similar warning should apply. 

The first four chapters of this novel chronicle the quotidian activities of The Reverend Jonathan Denby, who has lately been demobilized from the RAF after serving as a chaplain in the Middle East. He calls upon Bishop Kinghorn to obtain a post that will allow him to indulge his interest in early Saxon history. Bishop Kinghorn was also the headmaster of Denby’s public school (and also that of Denby’s cousin Henry, who is now a Cabinet minister). The Bishop suggests that Rev. Denby would suit the living of the remote village of Clynde, a poor rural district, the living of which is controlled by Lord Mundesley. There are problems; first is that the stipend associated with the living is nearly nothing, two hundred pounds a year, but since Denby’s father Sir Ambrose has settled a generous amount upon him, this is not a consideration. The other major issue is that Lord Mundesley has been difficult to please with respect to the incumbent; he prefers to wait for just the right parson and leave the living vacant until that man is found. Oh, and the “rambling barrack” of a rectory is said to be haunted.

Jonathan Denby meets with Lord Mundesley, whom we learn hates the politics of cousin Henry; Lord Mundesley comes from trade, and Henry is apparently an elitist. However, Rev. Denby makes it clear that he dislikes his cousin’s political career as well. Lord Mundesley is a friend of Sir Ambrose, and thus reluctantly agrees that Jonathan shall have the living. He tells Jonathan that the vicarage is unfit for habitation and tells him peremptorily that he’ll be living at a house Mundesley owns in the village. Jonathan has other plans, but doesn’t mention them to anyone; he obtains the key to the vicarage from a local woman and intends to camp out there until he can make the place more habitable. Jonathan feels that he doesn’t want to be quite so much under Mundesley’s thumb as to accepting his house and intends to present the lord of the manor with a fait accompli. He moves a camp bed and some basics into the deserted vicarage and is awakened in the middle of the night by some noises, which he goes to investigate — and that is the last we hear of the Reverend Jonathan Denby.

In fact, the cleric’s body is found floating in the ocean in Chapter 8 and this kicks off the real action of the book, after a very, very leisurely opening. Sir Ambrose identifies the body and Inspector Arnold embarks upon an investigation, with the help of his friend Desmond Merrion, who lives in the vicinity. (These are Burton’s two series characters.) Merrion is of a level of society at which he knows some of the people, including Lord Mundesley — who invited him to a day’s shooting some years ago. Sir Ambrose announces that he will devote his considerable fortune to finding out who killed his son … and almost immediately is found dead, apparently of a heart attack.

WARNING: You’re about to learn the complete solution to this mystery, which may well destroy any interest you have in reading it.  Please don’t proceed unless you are content with that idea.

I’ve left out the activities of the central portion of this book because they are, essentially, pretty boring. There is nothing wrong with anything that happens in this section, it’s merely the basic activities of the police procedural. Inspector Arnold and his friend Merrion trace down leads, investigate clues and slowly but surely build a picture of what’s happened. It may well be that Burton’s devotees — and I’m sure he had many — found this material delightful. Since it was already reasonably clear to me what was going on, approximately what had happened, and who was responsible, I have to say I found it fairly boring. And so I merely skimmed this middle section and pretty much jumped to the end to learn that, yes, I’d been right about everything and the solution was almost exactly as I’d forecast it.

Essentially what’s happening here is that there are two plots going on simultaneously. In the main body of the book, Lord Mundesley is a wealthy man but he is running a criminal operation that’s been using the deserted vicarage for storage of stolen goods. It’s not clear to me precisely why he’s doing this; he doesn’t need the money, but it seems as though he likes to keep his hand in the managing of a business whose basis is sharp practice. (He’s said to have made his money by selling patent medicines, which I understand at that time were frequently useless preparations taken more for the placebo effect than anything else.) His minions were engaged in clearing out the vicarage, unaware that the reverend was spending the night; a brutish lorry driver kills the reverend and then the gang goes to a great deal of trouble to get rid of the body and conceal their activities. Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion soon penetrate the criminals’ activities and bring home the crime to its perpetrators. The lorry driver is condemned to death and Lord Mundesley gets five years’ imprisonment.

When the Cabinet Minister, cousin Henry, learns of the death of Jonathan, he determines that he’s going to inherit Sir Ambrose’s entire fortune and wants it quickly, so he poisons Sir Ambrose with aconitine. When Henry learns that the jig is up, he poisons himself to avoid arrest and disgrace. I have to say that the only dubious point for me was whether Henry and Lord Mundesley had been working together; we are told explicitly in the early chapters that Mundesley dislikes Henry, so my only puzzlement was whether this was meant to be true or whether Mundesley was lying to conceal their mutual involvement. In fact, the two plots were unconnected and Mundesley was telling the truth about his dislike of Henry.

In the final paragraph of the book, the Bishop preaches a sermon that essentially said that both of these powerful criminals got what was coming to them.

n224779Why is this book worth your time?

As I suggested above, although I have a considerable familiarity with the body of detective fiction, the full breadth of the Humdrum school has pretty much escaped my attention. Part of the reason for this is that, generally speaking, these volumes are difficult to obtain, being both scarce and expensive. Major Street wrote about 143 mysteries; I have to say that in my long history, marked by an assiduous attention to tracking down books and authors with whom I was unfamiliar, I may have read fewer than 20 of them. And the only one that I remember with any degree of clarity is the book he wrote in partnership with “Carter Dickson” (John Dickson Carr), Drop To His Death (aka Fatal Descent); I’ve read everything Carr ever wrote, mostly with great pleasure, and this was no exception, so I ascribed my pleasure to Carr rather than Rhode. When I worked behind the counter of a mystery bookstore, any used copies of John Rhode novels which happened to cross my desk vanished into eager hands within a week, sometimes without my having had the chance to read them before departure; Miles Burton novels were almost always completely absent from my stock.

So, unlike many different sub-genres of detective fiction, Humdrum practitioners like Major Street have been largely unknown to me — and, I venture to say, to most of my readers. There are a reasonable number of Freeman Wills Crofts novels available, but John Rhode/Miles Burton not so much. I can’t honestly say that I know the Humdrum School in the same breadth and depth as I do, say, the locked-room mystery or the police procedural or the comedy mystery.  In fact, my opinions are bound to be shallow through lack of experience and I will be looking to read a lot more of these books before I feel I can make any authoritative pronouncements; that’s why I’ve tried to steer you to the well-informed thoughts of Curtis Evans.

That being said, I have to say I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I was going to. Yes, as I have confessed above, the solutions to the crimes were really quite obvious to me almost from the point at which they were described. However, that has happened in a number of different instances, partly because I’ve read so many thousands of mysteries that I’ve grown accustomed to the way that writers’ minds work when trying to fool the reader. So I don’t regard this as a drawback. I actually enjoy re-reading a good mystery for the pleasure of the writing, so it’s not really the “thrill of the chase” that draws me to a book.

One of the things that does contribute to my enjoyment of a mystery is the way in which it is embedded in a time and place; social context, if you will. And here is where I really did find a great deal to enjoy. There are many, many things in this book that are not written down that underpin its actions that have to do with the time and place. For instance — the denomination of the Reverend is never specifically mentioned. That’s because the author, everyone in the book, and everyone in its natural audience understands that the only church is the Church of England. Major Street would never have bothered to mention this, in the same way that he would not have bothered to explain that Scotland Yard had nothing to do with Scotland. In the Humdrum school, other denominations of religious organizations are looked upon with suspicion, and “heathens” and the like are prime suspects wherever they appear.

Similarly, when Lord Mundesley is presented as having come from a background in which he actually sold things for money (“from trade”), the audience is meant to understand that this makes him the social inferior of a gentleman such as Sir Ambrose, because he is a “life peer” rather than the hereditary scion of a long line of Denbys. It’s also not spoken, but understood, that Lord Mundesley has an interest in keeping on the good side of Sir Ambrose for social reasons, and thus would find it difficult to refuse a clerical living under his control to the son of Sir Ambrose. There are many more things that would have been much more clear to the British reader of 1949 than they are to this Canadian of 2014. I’m not precisely sure, for instance, what is being said when the well-born Desmond Merrion mentions that he was invited some years ago to Lord Mundesley’s for a day’s shooting — but doesn’t mention ever returning. Was Merrion snubbing Mundesley? Was Mundesley snubbing Merrion? Was this some kind of inchoate social outreach effort on Mundesley’s part that met with polite acceptance, but no enthusiasm for a return engagement? Since Mundesley turns out to be not only a counter-jumper (look this up, it’s a fascinating turn of phrase) but a criminal, perhaps Merrion was merely exercising good judgment. There are many such fine, fine gradations of social class and background in this book, particularly in the opening chapters. The point is that the levels and gradations of the post-WWII British social experience were obviously Major Street’s milieu and that of his natural audience, and his command of those gradations obviously met with the approval of his audience. I’ll suggest that the British reader of 1949 wished to be confirmed in its opinion that some Lords were no better than they should be, and that Scotland Yard always got its man, and that low-class charladies were rarely thieves but made good honest witnesses, village bobbies were out of their element with complex crimes, et cetera.  And that this was accomplished by reading books in which these concepts formed the basis but were not really spoken aloud.  What was really going on was that the correctness and durability of the long-established social order was being affirmed.

The other reason I enjoyed this novel was because of its writing, which seems a little paradoxical. Major Street was not known at all for skill at writing, but rather at plotting; Symons and other critics suggest that he was something of a utilitarian writer, just good enough to get the job done. And yet I kept thinking, as I read, of Hemingway. Believe me, I have not lost my grip on an ability to judge prose; it’s simply that Hemingway made few words say a lot, and so, in his own way, did Major Street. There is little extraneous prose here, and little in the way of description. Yet Street managed to make seven very slow chapters at the beginning of this book catch my attention; I liked the character of the Reverend and wanted to know more about him, and was somewhat discouraged when he turned out to be the victim. I enjoyed the way in which the writer created the social milieu against which the actions took place, and I even found that Street had something of a flair for writing dialogue that revealed character.

I can’t say that this is deathless prose that will survive through the ages; it didn’t even attract the attention of a publisher for a paperback edition, which says a lot, given their endless quest for inexpensive fodder. But I enjoyed this novel’s attempts to amuse me in a mild, bloodless way, and I am sufficiently encouraged to go look for more of the same. I think you might be too.

Notes for the Collector:

The first edition (Collins Crime Club, 1949) is available in two states, one better than the other, from Abebooks for £40 (about $68 US); a second edition was offered for £29. I was unable to find any copies of The Disappearing Parson available for sale. This does seem to be a scarce book but not absolutely unobtainable; since a reading copy is available for free on the internet as noted above, it’s only collectors of this specific writer who will be interested in this novel, I suspect. In that case, my general advice is to buy a copy of the first edition in the best condition you can find.

2014 Vintage Mystery Bingo:

This 1944 volume qualifies as a Golden Age mystery; fifth under “D”, “Read one mystery that involves water.” The titular victim (the disappearing parson of the US edition) is found floating in the ocean and the events of the plot involve considerable activity at sea, involved in the transportation of stolen goods. For a chart outlining my progress, see the end of this post.

Vintage Golden Card 001