A little over a week ago I kicked off my project to get to know the members of The Detection Club, a society of writers of mystery stories by reading a work by each of them. I started with the club’s first president, G. K. Chesterton, by taking a look at The Innocence of Father Brown and my intention at that point was to go on and feature Anthony Berkeley and Dorothy L Sayers, the figures most directly concerned with establishing the club, but when I acquired a copy of The Devouring Fire on the recommendation of several commenters on that post I couldn’t resist the lure of trying another writer that was new to me…
One of the earliest detective novelists to focus on ‘fair play’ was the old Etonian Lord Gorell… Gorell’s aim was to ‘to deal fairly with its readers… Every essential fact is related as it is discovered and readers are, as far as possible, given the eyes of the investigators and equal opportunities with them of arriving at the truth.’Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)
Ronald Gorell Barnes, 3rd Baron Gorell, was one of the initial intake of members of The Detection Club. A second son of a peer, he inherited his title when his older brother died during the First World War, a conflict in which he fought and was wounded.
Initially a Liberal peer, he served in Lloyd-George’s coalition government as Under-Secretary of Air from 1921 until that government fell in 1922. After defecting to the Labour Party in 1925, he was apparently asked to be a part of the MacDonald cabinet but declined writing ‘poetry not politics is my real life’ 1. He was active in public life however and would later become Chairman of the Refugee Children’s Movement which helped transport thousands of Jewish children out of Nazi-controlled territory by train and ferry in the months leading up to World War II. As Chairman of that organization he became guardian to the thousands of refugee children who had no parents in Britain following the Guardianship Act of 1944 2.
Gorell’s career in crime fiction began with the publication of In the Night in 1917. This book which Martin Edwards features in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books introduced amateur sleuth Evelyn Temple who would return in at least one later work, Red Lilac. Edwards describes In the Night as ‘his most significant contribution to the genre’ but, as Santosh Iyer correctly predicted, there were no copies to be found at a price I would be willing to consider paying. After failing to get hold of the book through interlibrary loan, I opted to purchase a copy of The Devouring Fire, another mystery novel he wrote prior to joining the Detection Club.
Crime fiction was not Gorell’s only creative outlet. He also wrote poetical works such as The Last of the English and Wings of the Morning and from 1933 to 1939 he was the editor of The Cornhill Magazine, a literary journal that had its greatest success in the nineteenth century under the editorship of William Makepeace Thackeray.
In the decades that followed his becoming a member of The Detection Club, Gorell wrote a number of works of mystery and suspense fiction with the last apparently being Murder at Manor House published in 1954. To the best of my knowledge none of these have been reprinted in years.
In 1956 Agatha Christie was invited to become President of the Detection Club and agreed to serve on the condition that she not be required to perform any public speaking. Edwards writes in The Golden Age of Murder that he agreed to do this on her behalf but required that he be appointed co-President – a role he would hold until his death in 1963.
1 Shepherd, John. 2010. “The Flight from the Liberals who Joined Labour, 1914-1931” Journal of Liberal History, 67 (Summer 2010): 24-34
2 Holtman, Tasha. 2014. “‘A Covert from the Tempest’: Responsibility, Love and Politics in Britain’s Kindertransport.” History Teacher 48 (1): 107–26. https://search-ebscohost-com.proxygsu-grl1.galileo.usg.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=99803676&site=eds-live&scope=site.
The Devouring Fire
Originally published in 1928
Cover shown is from the 1949 John Murray reprint (yes, my copy is torn)
I offer no blurb for The Devouring Fire because the only one I can find, the one on the inside of the jacket of my rather beat-up reprint edition, pretty much spoils the resolution to the book.
The novel begins by describing the circumstances in which the victim, a man by the name of Grimwade, is found lying dead in his study. He has sustained a heavy blow to the back of his head and the initial medical examination assumes that is responsible but the police investigator, not trusting the aging doctor who is first to the scene, calls in another for a second opinion who finds that the blade of a hat pin has been pushed through the victim’s chest into his heart.
The young investigator, Harry Farrant, is aware that this case could well be the making of his career and decides to seek out the assistance of Mr. Birch, who had retired to live in the area after being a Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard. Though Birch is initially reluctant to become too involved in the case, he allows Farrant to discuss the matter with him and later sits in on some of the interviews, offering feedback and advice about what he has heard.
As Edwards notes in the passage I quoted at the start of this post, Gorell takes care to ensure that the reader sees and hears everything Farrant does in his investigation. This is possible in part because Gorell provides a relatively small cast of characters and some physical evidence at the crime scene will quickly lead us to focus our attention on just a couple of figures connected with the case.
I appreciated Gorell’s efforts to tell a fair play detective story but the choice to focus on a couple of pieces of physical evidence – footprints and a fingerprint – gives the investigation a rather unfortunate, plodding quality. Each new discovery narrows, rather than expands, the scope of that investigation and for much of the book there is little to shock or surprise.
In spite of the somewhat humdrum qualities of the investigation, I did quite enjoy the read. One of principle reasons for this was that I really liked the dynamic of the young investigator relying on the advice of a more seasoned and cautious figure and I enjoyed their discussions of the case. Farrant frustrated me though with some of his choices at points, not least a decision to barge in during an incriminating conversation he overhears to cut it short out of a concern that he play the game fairly. This is necessary for the plot to unfold as it does but it struck me as rather silly.
The book’s real purpose and point of interest is to be found in its short final act – the chapters which form a sort of coda to the investigation and the trial that happens. These final chapters take a markedly different tone and style than those that preceded it, being described on the jacket as ‘blood-curdling’ and evoking a ‘breathless horror’. This is perhaps overstating their effectiveness. This reader – usually among the most susceptible to feel chilled by such writing – found them more atmospheric than scary, perhaps in part because I was aware that there would have to be a mundane explanation.
When that explanation is given I was pleased to find that it was properly clued while still being, to me at least, rather surprising. Edwards notes in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books that Gorell liked to boast that Conan Doyle said the solution to this ‘had him guessing completely’ so I am in good company. I think it is broadly fair though the sudden nature of the reveal in the last few pages did leave me feeling that I had a few unresolved questions. If Gorell doesn’t provide those details directly, I think most can be inferred by the reader.
Overall I found The Devouring Fire to be a solid, if not particularly thrilling, read. His prose can be a little slow, his prose verbose, but the plotting is careful and I appreciated some of the ideas introduced by Gorell towards the end of the novel which if not wholly groundbreaking are at least done well.
I think I would certainly be willing to try other works by this author should I ever come across any at a reasonable price or, preferably, reprinted. Have you read anything by Lord Gorell?