Murder First Class by Leonard Gribble

Originally published 1946
Superintendent Slade #13
Preceded by Tragedy in E Flat
Followed by Atomic Murder

A vintage English murder mystery set onboard a moving train.

Leonard Gribble was an amazingly prolific writer of mystery and suspense fiction, churning out dozens of works under multiple noms de plume. I first encountered his work when I read and reviewed the British Library Crime Classics reprint of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. That was several years ago now and I have to say that the memories have become a little hazy but I do remember finding it to be an enjoyable, page-turning read.

I was excited to note that there are now several Gribble novels available as ebooks, giving me an opportunity to dig a little deeper into his output. The reason I opted for this one was the short blurb, reproduced above, which clearly suggests the mystery is set on a moving train.

As it happens this blurb is a terrible indication of what the book is about and I was left puzzled whether they had even read it. For one thing, in just ten words they manage to make a factual error – at the end of the first chapter we are told:

Two minutes before it was scheduled to depart on its journey to London a man pulled open the door of a first-class compartment, and found the only occupant lolling across a seat.

Nor is the murder of that man, a blackmailer who has been killed with a hat pin dipped in curare, really much of the focus of the novel. Inspector Slade’s interest in the death is mostly in relation to another case he is already investigating of a drugs smuggling operation as it turns out that the dead man was someone they had been looking to interview.

This is just a fraction of the information that is conveyed to the reader in the first twelve pages of the novel which I think gives us a sense of the pace and the sensational style in which this story will be told. The plot is continually driven forwards and Gribble’s focus is on providing thrills for his reader rather than rational developments. There is, for instance, never much explanation where the curare was sourced from.

For this reason I would suggest that this book would have the strongest appeal for those who favor thriller-style stories over the fair-play mystery. There are certainly a few questions that the reader might solve for themselves but this is not a heavily-clued story.

Slade begins this story having just been promoted to the rank of Superintendent at Scotland Yard, being given the role of coordinating the Yard’s activities with local constabularies. This is quite a clever move on Gribble’s part as it gives him a higher status while not tying him to a specific region.

Slade is nowhere near as colorful as the case he is called on to solve though he does exude a certain calm competence which I appreciated. Certainly it is always easy to understand his actions and what he is thinking which is appreciated given how quickly this case unfolds.

The other characters are, as you might expect from a work of this length, written quite functionally. Certainly no one stands out as being particularly memorable or interesting beyond their immediate role in the case. I might be less forgiving of that in a longer work but it does fit the general approach Gribble takes here.

My biggest issues with the story relate to the way Gribble concludes it. While Slade does work to catch the culprit, much of the background to the case is supplied by the criminal in a lengthy exchange. The information given is certainly necessary to understand the story but this seems such a clumsy way to impart it and it left me with the unsatisfying feeling that Slade hadn’t really solved everything himself. This is fine if read as a thriller but obviously less satisfying if approached as a fair-play detective story.

As it happened I was more than okay with the former. The story is often quite corny and some of the plotting can feel a little silly but it is a lively and engaging read. That happened to be the sort of read I am finding myself in the mood for lately given how easily distracted (or tired) I am. Gribble’s punchy turns of phrase certainly kept my attention as did that sharp pacing.

I might suggest however that if you are entirely new to the author and open to sporting stories you would be better served reading a copy of The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. That has many of the same positive qualities as this but is much more satisfying as a mystery.

The Verdict: An enjoyable, if sometimes rather corny, thriller-style read.

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