The Detection Club Project: Victor Whitechurch – Murder at the Pageant
#12: Victor Whitechurch
Whitechurch was supposedly the first detective story writer to devote such care to his description of police procedure that he checked the authenticity of his manuscripts with Scotland Yard.Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)
One of my goals in undertaking this project to acquaint myself with each of the members of the Detection Club was to encounter some writers from the Golden Age who were completely unknown to me. Victor Lorenzo Whitechurch fits that bill perfectly.
Though he is referenced a couple of times in The Golden Age of Murder, discussion of his life and work is pretty thin. That may perhaps reflect that he died just a few years after the start of the club or that he was not such a strong personality as some other founder members of that club. After briefly outlining his series character and listing him as one of the Christian members of the Club, the next time he is mentioned is to note the vacancy caused by his death. His seat would be filled by Gladys Mitchell.
Whitechurch had a series detective, Thorpe Hazell, who was unusual in being a detective with a specialty topic – railway crimes. I previously read one of his stories, The Affair of the Corridor Express in the Blood on the Tracks collection issued by the British Library. A quick glance at my review of that book saw me praise the tightness of its construction and select it as one of the two highlights of the collection along with the offering from R. Austin Freeman.
Edwards highlights an unusual aspect of this character, his health fanaticism, with a pretty amusing description of a passage from a story. He also notes that Whitechurch was notable for his attention to police procedure, supposedly checking the authenticity of his work with Scotland Yard.
While I don’t know that I would have guessed that Whitechurch had gone to those lengths off the back of either of my experiences of his work, it is certainly noticeable that the story I picked to read by him, Murder at the Pageant, reads at least in part as a police procedural. Though the central sleuth is working in a private capacity, we are privy to the progress of that official investigation and read details of some of the exhaustive, detail-driven aspects of what is done.
Murder at the Pageant would turn out to be one of the last novels by Whitechurch but I suspect I will be seeking out more of his work in the future…
(For those curious to learn more about Whitechurch, consider checking out this post on the Promoting Crime Fiction blog).
Murder at the Pageant (1930)
The pageant was held, amid great ceremony and pomp, at Frimley Manor, and it featured the reenactment of Queen Anne’s visit to the great country estate in 1705. Visitors flocked to see the lavishly costumed affair, especially the ritual carrying of Queen Anne in a sedan chair from the entrance gate of the estate to the front steps of the great house.
Mrs. Cresswell, a guest of Sir Harry Lynwood, Lord of Frimley Manor, grandly impersonated the Queen, dazzling the crowd with her spectacular pearl necklace. But her performance in the sedan chair would soon be upstaged. In the dead of night, under an eerily fading moon, the chair would be discovered with a new occupant: a dying man, whose last words were “The… line.”Excerpt from the lengthy blurb of the 1987 Dover reprint.
I should probably start by explaining that I had initially planned to tackle Victor L. Whitechurch some months ago. Indeed I even trailed those plans, only to hit an unexpected snag when I got about a third of the way in to discover that the cheap secondhand copy I’d found had been rendered unreadable by a previous, careless reader. Consider that a lesson learned to flip all the way through any purchases as soon as received…
The cost of buying a second copy wasn’t a problem – as noted above, this is one of the titles that is in pretty plentiful (and affordable) supply – but it did take a while for a new copy to arrive. Long enough that I would need to start over from scratch.
As it happens that didn’t turn out to be a bad thing. As the title indicates, this book takes place following a historical pageant – the reenactment of a monarch’s visit to the country estate where it is set. What have I been up to over the past few months? Well, a big chunk of that was spent researching historical reenactments as part of my college studies. While this book can’t be said to give much insight into the practice, I appreciated the subject matter all the more for that as well as the book’s somewhat comic depiction of the inconsistent commitment to authenticity among the participants.
After enjoying the festivities commemorating that monarch’s visit, the owners of the estate and some of their guests retire to relax and dine together. Later that night however one of them, retired intelligence officer Captain Roger Bristow, is surprised to observe two individuals running from the manor carrying the sedan chair that had been central to the pageant. They flee on being discovered in another unlikely vehicle, leaving Bristow to discover one of the other guests on the point of death who leaves a somewhat cryptic message with his final breath.
Bristow is an interesting choice of protagonist as he is both amateur and professional. He has no formal standing in the case for much of the novel and yet the police are aware of his abilities and skill as an investigator. This enables him to sit on the edge of the investigation, avoid being too beholden to the process of police procedure, and yet he is still diligent and thorough in his approach to detection. Indeed the character he reminded me most of was the earlier version of Inspector French, where corners were sometimes cut for practical reasons but the investigation was thorough and detailed with a focus on following each investigative thread to its end. Like French, Bristow is not a particularly colorful figure (aside from the occasional allusion to his past career) but he inspires confidence while avoiding coming off as arrogant.
Bristow’s investigative efforts are mirrored by an official police investigation which we also follow. Those characters are well drawn with Whitechurch doing a fine job of illustrating the dynamics between the individuals working the case and their way of working.
These two investigations run parallel throughout the novel. At some points we follow the police investigation more closely, at other times Bristow. These two investigations are not exactly in competition, though there are points at which one investigation has information withheld from the other. This works quite nicely and adds some additional interest, particularly in the final third of the novel as we move toward the endgame.
One slight curious note is that while there is a murder and a jewel theft to consider, we spend much of our time focused on the latter. There are reasons given for that choice – namely the investigators work on the assumption that the one was a product of the other – but I did find it a touch odd that Whitechurch doesn’t focus more on the murder element of his plot. Indeed it’s surprisingly easy to forget that one happened at all for big chunks of the story.
I did appreciate the cast of characters that Whitechurch creates to populate Frimley Manor. As with the investigators, none are particularly colorful yet they represent a solid mix of upper class types and present a range of possibilities for the reader to consider.
In terms of the puzzle itself, I was pleasantly surprised by how solid it seemed. There is, for instance, some neat misdirection and I enjoyed following Bristow as he pieced the thing together from the information we are given. My only real disappointment lay within the dying words aspect of the story which is – not all that puzzling. Still, as the main deductive process does not utilize it, the disappointment was short-lived.
Overall, I was largely impressed with this encounter with Whitechurch. While this is by no means a flashy mystery, I felt it presented a neat twist on the manor mystery and I enjoyed following along with the investigation. Indeed my biggest question really is why this has yet to secure a reprint. Should it ever do so, or if you ever stumble on a cheap secondhand copy, I think it’s worth a look!