A Press of Suspects by Andrew Garve
Originally published in 1951
Original published in the US as By-Line for Murder
When the Foreign Editor of London’s Morning Call newspaper resigns, his assistant Edgar Jessop seems, at least to himself, the obvious choice to replace him. Particularly as he has been passed over for promotion on so many occasions in the past.
Jessop is, therefore, outraged to learn that one of the young, upstart reporters, Cardew, is to be awared the position, and Jessop is to be shipped off to Malaya to report on the recent disturbances: a seeming punishment for all his years of hard work.
Driven to despair, Jessop hatches a plan to take revenge on the staff at the Morning Call. When one of the journalists is poisoned, the whole press-team become suspects to murder. For no one would suspect shy, retiring Jessop of this heinous crime, would they? It is up to Chief Inspector Haines to investigate…
It’s been a little while since I last posted on the blog as the demands of real life have kept me too busy to read. The good news is that the past few days I was able to take a short break with my family and while I was not able to read as much as I would have liked, I did read quite a bit more than I expected. Not all of my reading would fall within the remits of this blog but there were two or three titles you should expect to see thoughts on within the next week or so.
The book I am writing about today was actually the last of the books I finished but I decided to start with it for a couple of reasons. One is that, as those who know me well will have predicted, it is an inverted mystery and I take great pleasure in reading and writing about those. The other is that the book has hardly been reviewed online and so it seemed more important to get my thoughts down about it while they were still pretty fresh in my mind.
Andrew Garve was one of several pseudonyms used by the journalist Paul Winterton for writing crime fiction. I have previously read and reviewed other books written as Garve and also as Roger Bax for this blog and found most of the titles I have tried so far to be interesting and entertaining. While I have several of his works on my TBR pile, this one interested me particularly as it draws heavily on Winterton’s own background working for newspapers as the story is set in the newsroom of the Morning Call newspaper.
We encounter our murderer, Edgar Jessop, near the start of the story as we learn a little of his background at the paper and come to understand what will drive him to murder. This is a seasoned journalist who has come to expect that if he works diligently, acts inoffensively and bides his time he will surely find himself promoted to a senior position. Instead he is passed over in favor of younger, greener journalists he has supervised and trained.
Insult is added to injury when, after meeting with the editor, he is informed that while he was recommended by his superior to take over as Foreign Editor, the paper has chosen to go with someone with more travel experience. Cardew, a man widely believed to be having an affair with the editor’s wife, will take the job while Jessop is to be sent on assignment to Malaya as the first stop on a tour of Southeast Asia to get some field experience. Insulted and concerned that his editor is shipping him off as a first step towards dismissal, the resentment in Jessop grows not only towards the editor but to several other senior journalists at the paper. After enduring a restless night, Jessop decides on a plan to take his revenge by eliminating those he holds responsible…
The most successful part of A Press of Suspects is the strong sense of place the author is able to create for the reader, both as a physical location but also in terms of the people who inhabit it. Some of the observations are entertaining, such as the security guard’s reaction to questioning about whether any of the journalists arrived early, others are more informative such as detailing the way expenses were worked and the varying degrees of latitude allowed to the reporters. The setting really comes to life and while we closely follow just a handful of characters, we are continually reminded that the organization itself is much bigger.
In addition to the strong sense of place, this book also feels strongly tied to the moment in which it is set. Frequent references to the war and the way that altered how the journalists worked are made, reminding us that those days were still recent at the time of writing. Jessop, who continued to work as a journalist throughout the conflict, resents the admiration towards those who fought as they are not sitting back and waiting their turn as he did but actively pursuing advancement. I was impressed that this was not just a matter of background but rather they become quite integral to some developments that take place later in the story.
As I read I began to compare this book to a much later effort by the writer Simon Brett, A Shock to the System, which similarly takes place at a time of some social change within the workplace. The idea that a seemingly mild-mannered man would become increasingly enraged by perceptions of injustice that the rules of the game have changed is a strong one and here Garve ties it into other developments in Jessop’s life, giving the strong impression that the character suffers a complete mental breakdown. There is a crucial difference however in how the two stories are handled that I think keeps this from being as successful as it could have been.
While Garve opts to let us in on the secret of the murderer’s identity from close to the start, allowing us to experience the chain of thoughts that lead him to kill, we do not see him planning and executing the details of each murder. Those are provided to us once the police begin their investigations and so we are kept at a distance from Jessop while the murders are carried out.
There can, of course, be some benefits to taking that approach. One is that we are able to follow the action from the investigator’s side as we try to piece together exactly what happened. The problem here though is that we know too much of what Jessop wants to be truly baffled. For example, the first murder that gets committed has a solid method and the reasoning behind it makes sense yet I couldn’t help but feel that it would be more engaging to follow along with the investigation in ignorance of the motive given the simplicity of the method itself.
Later in the novel, when another murder takes place, there is similarly an opportunity to build some tension and suspense as we might have followed Jessop as he tries to evade detection to execute his plan. Instead Garve has us puzzle over what exactly he has done and while there is some shock from the horror of what he has done, it takes just a few moments for the investigators to be able to explain it.
The other thing that I think holds this story back is that Jessop himself is not a particularly interesting murderer. Once we understand the nature of his resentments there is not much more to learn about him as a man. Nor do we see much introspection about what he has done or consideration of how committing those murders may have changed him as a man. The further attempts at murder play less as developments in his personality or as considered acts of desperation than further evidence of a complete breakdown. He is, in short, a character who becomes less interesting as the novel goes on.
As for the question of how this will be resolved, I felt generally satisfied by the explanation though some may feel (with justification) that it feels rather tangential. The reader may well recognize the likely issue, even if it is never really discussed in the book until it is used. If there is some disappointment here though, it is that Jessop’s behavior in general at that point in the story seems to make his detection inevitable even if this particular issue was not discovered which does detract a little from that moment.
All of which is a shame because the parts of this that work do so beautifully. It offers some superb commentary on the relationship between the press and those in power as well as of corruption and laziness in Fleet Street. The characters who inhabit that office, with the exception of Jessop himself, feel quite dimensional and credible and I enjoyed experiencing their bafflement as they find themselves under suspicion.
For those interested in the setting there is much to enjoy here but those seeking an inverted mystery by this writer would be better served by starting with either Blueprint for Murder or Disposing of Henry.
The Verdict: Enjoyable but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this may well have worked better as a conventional detective story.