#10: Robert Eustace
Despite a career in crime fiction spanning more than forty years, Robert Eustace was the most mysterious member of the Detection Club. For decades after his death, students of the genre speculated about his identity, his date of birth, and even his sexual orientation.Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)
I think it is safe to say that back when I first conceived of my project of reading a work by every member of the Detection Club, I didn’t expect that I would be writing about Robert Eustace before Dorothy L. Sayers. As it happens though my book club is reading The Documents in the Case, his collaboration with her, this month. As it is a work he regarded with some enthusiasm, declaring it ‘the best idea of my life’, it seemed foolish to not select it for this series.
While details Eustace’s life may not have been quite as enigmatic as some suggest, he does not leap off the page as one of the more memorable figures in The Golden Age of Murder. In that book he is discussed principally in connection with his work on The Documents in the Case, though what information we do get about his personality paints a portrait of a rather eccentric individual. At the point at which he joined the Detection Club he had been an active figure in the genre for several decades and while his early stories featured crimes, they were often works of suspense – some suggesting supernatural elements.
Eustace’s primary profession was that of medical doctor but he pursued fiction as a way of supplementing his professional income. Almost all of his works were written in collaboration with others such as L. T. Meade and Edgar Jepson. It was a collaboration with the latter that produced one of his most memorable works, The Tea-Leaf – a short story which features in the British Library’s Capital Crimes anthology.
In that story a man is stabbed to death in the steam room of a Russian bathhouse but no weapon can be found. It is one of those stories that sadly suffers from its pretty inventive central concept being frequently appropriated by subsequent, often inferior works. While the work’s brevity works in its favor, if you happen to have read another book that utilizes the method developed for that story there will be no mystery in the solution at all.
The idea at the heart of The Documents in the Case would be far more complex and it has lost none of its novelty. That story was built around a scientific idea that Eustace had researched that would play a key part in developing its resolution and which also appealed to Sayers. His role in developing the work that would emerge was to further research and refine that idea, providing technical assistance to Sayers who would be responsible for developing the narrative around that.
It would prove to be a one-off experiment as Sayers was ultimately displeased with her efforts which she apparently felt did not do justice to Eustace’s idea. Still, it does illustrate Eustace’s enthusiasm for constructing a story around a novel technical solution…
The Documents in the Case by Dorothy L. Sayers and Robert Eustace
Originally published in 1930
The bed was broken and tilted grotesquely sideways. Harrison was sprawled over in a huddle of soiled blankets. His mouth was twisted . . .
Harrison had been an expert on deadly mushrooms. How was it then that he had eaten a large quantity of death-dealing muscarine? Was it an accident? Suicide? Or murder?
The documents in the case seemed to be a simple collection of love notes and letters home. But they concealed a clue to the brilliant murderer who baffled the best minds in London.
The Documents in the Case is an example of a dossier crime novel in which the novel is comprised of a collection of documents and accounts from the characters involved in the story. While I can think of a few examples of this approach, the only other book in this style that I have written about so far on this blog is Andrew Garve’s excellent political thriller The File on Lester.
The choice to write crime fiction in a dossier presentation style is an intriguing one, particularly given it makes for quite a departure from Sayers’ usual approach which was a detective story with a clear sleuthing character. While the reader here can infer who is likely responsible for collating these documents reasonably early in the book, they cannot be certain why they are doing this until close to halfway into the story.
The advantage of this style is that it can allow for the development of strong and distinctive character voices, permitting us access to their internal thoughts and feelings. In particular we will read the thoughts of the victim and those we will come to suspect of killing them, getting a sense of their personalities and how their perspectives sometimes contradict those of the other narrators. There are some points where this can be quite effectively done, particularly as we get to learn about the state of Harrison’s marriage, but it can also lead to some rather ponderous storytelling as characters reflect, pontificate and opine about the same things we have already seen before.
One way that this might have been avoided is to have more variety in the type of documents found inside the book but here the reader is to be disappointed. Almost everything in the first part of the novel is a letter, often with multiple letters sent from the same writer to the same recipient presented in a row. This, to my mind, removes the principal benefit of the form – that of variety.
That being said, these early chapters do raise an interesting point regarding the reader’s sympathies in the conflict between the Harrisons. The viewpoints expressed about the same sets of events differ so wildly in interpretation that we might wonder where the truth lies as both characters are, of course, writing for their respective audiences. This raises the possibility of unreliability but this is an idea that never really gets taken up seriously as the accounts prove surprisingly straightforward.
That itself perhaps reflects that while the book does not directly explain what happened until close to its end, aspects of the solution will likely jump out at the reader early. The authors seem less interested in keeping the reader guessing who was responsible as how they will be caught. The effect is not dissimilar to that found in one of Sayers’ earlier works, Unnatural Death. The difference between the two works is largely, in my view, one of the accessibility of the solution.
Robert Eustace’s great idea that so intrigued Sayers is undoubtedly a really clever one but it has a problem that plagues so many detective stories predicated on a highly technical explanation – to feel involved in the deductive process, the reader will have to possess the information needed to decode it prior to the story’s denouement. Unlike Unnatural Death which hinges on a single, simple idea, the concept at the heart of The Documents in the Case requires considerable explanation to be properly appreciated.
It is a shame that one of the documents included wasn’t a diagram or illustration to show more practically the idea that ends up being discussed at length as it might have helped compact the explanation (or at least given me something interesting to look at as my eyes glazed over). Instead however it ends up being trailed in a dense and rather dry passage of the type that will delight those who appreciate inventive scientific thinking while boring those less scientifically-minded, keeping it from achieving its full effect – at least upon this reader.
If that seems overly negative, I should say that there were aspects of the book I enjoyed such as the characterization of Munting, the writer, whose letters often contain mildly acidic observations of the other figures involved in the drama and betray a deep desire to be left out of the whole affair. There is some interesting musing about art, the natural world, and publishing too, and I appreciated that the victim is built up to be a properly dimensional character and I appreciate that the book explores some of his ambiguities.
The problem is that the things that interest me here are simply not the ones that most interest Sayers and Eustace. Their focus is on the method of detection and as much as I recognize and admire the cleverness of the concept, I find it all a bit dry for my taste and though interesting in places, it entertained less than I should have liked.
The Verdict: Eustace was right to think his idea brilliant but it is also rather dry. Given that there is no body until over halfway into the book and little suspense about who the victim and killer will be, too much hinges on how the thing was done and the case proven.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book appears to not currently be in print in the United States but there is a British edition published by Hodder Paperbacks (ISBN: 978-1473621343) that can be imported from booksellers who ship internationally. It is however available as an eBook (which is how I read it) – albeit one that has more typos than I would like and which, annoyingly, has no table of contents.