The Detection Club Project: Hugh Walpole – The Killer and the Slain

Investigating the Detection Club - a series of posts exploring works written by members of the famous club for writers of mystery fiction.

#13: Hugh Walpole

Cigarette card image of Hugh Walpole
Image Credit: Sir Hugh Walpole, probably after Bassano Ltd. © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

He yearned to be one of the great and the good of the literary establishment, and an invitation to join the prestigious new Detection Club boosted his fragile ego. Yet throughout his life he remained an outsider.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

Hugh Walpole was a household name, writing bestselling fiction in a variety of styles and genre. From ghost stories to bildungsroman, family saga to gothic horror. He penned literary biographies, plays, and the screenplay for the 1935 adaptation of David Copperfield (we’ll come back to that last one later on in this post).

His celebrity extended to popular lecture tours, and he was keen to be in the public eye. Wodehouse dismissed his career as ‘two thirds publicity’, commenting that he was always endorsing books and speaking at luncheons. Others have described his generosity as a patron, privately offering financial support to younger writers – although some friends felt that he was too encouraging of some mediocre talents.

In some ways Hugh Walpole’s career seems to have mimicked that of another founder member of the Detection Club, Freeman Wills Crofts. Like Crofts, Walpole was tremendously popular in his day – when the Detection Club did their first round robin story, he was regarded as the lead name in a project that also featured Sayers, Berkeley, Christie, E. C. Bentley, and Knox.

Today Walpole has essentially been forgotten. While that is not necessarily surprising in the context of detective fiction, of which he was only an occasional author. After becoming a huge success in the twenties, in the thirties Walpole’s work began to be dismissed as dated or insubstantial. When he died in 1941, an anonymous obituary in the Times described his style as workmanlike. This would, no doubt, have devastated Walpole.

The book I’ll be discussing today, The Killer and the Slain, was published the year following his death and, Edwards argues, the combination of wartime publication and the author’s death meant it was ‘destined for obscurity’. This is a tremendous shame because it is an absolute gem of a read and certainly my favorite of the books I have read so far as part of this project.

The Killer and the Slain by Hugh Walpole

Originally published in 1942

As boys, Jimmie Tunstall was John Talbot’s implacable foe, never ceasing to taunt, torment, and bully him. Years later, John is married and living in a small coastal town when he learns, much to his chagrin, that his old adversary has just moved to the same town. Before long the harassment begins anew until finally, driven to desperation, John murders his tormentor. Soon he starts to suffer from frightening hallucinations and his personality and physical appearance begin to alter, causing him increasingly to resemble the man he killed. Is it merely the psychological effect of his guilt, or is it the manifestation of something supernatural—and evil? The tension builds until the chilling final scene, when the horrifying truth will be revealed about the killer—and the slain.

The Killer and the Slain is not a work of detective fiction. It has clear crime elements – the murder that we see committed – but its focus is more on the conditions that lead John Talbot to murder and the way that the crime affects him subsequently. The reason I would suggest that it sits on the edge of the genre is its incorporation of supernatural elements, whether they are real or some kind of psychological manifestation, reminding me somewhat of James Hoggs’ The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

The novel, narrated by Talbot as a reflection and account of his life written in his final days, tells of his bullying at school by the far more popular Jimmie Tunstall. Jimmie would insist on calling him ‘Jacko’, make fun of him and his creative endeavors to the other boys, and physically harassed him, making Talbot really uncomfortable. Jimmie insisted that he was really awfully fond of Talbot, dismissing his complaints as sensitivity and an inability to take a joke. When Talbot finally makes another friend, Jimmie sabotages it. Talbot is relieved when the torment finally ends and he leaves school to take over his parents’ antiques business and to try to make a success of himself as an author.

His world will come crashing down years later however when, having started a family and found some moderate success as a writer, his path crosses once again with Jimmie when the latter takes a home near his and insists on socializing together. Talbot is unable to resist and feels that a cycle of bullying is about to start once more, leading him to murder as a form of self-preservation. In its aftermath however he finds that the act has fundamentally changed him and he begins to turn into the man he has killed.

One of the things that immediately struck me about the book was how much of Walpole is in the character of John Talbot. We read Talbot’s insecurities about the quality of his work, only thinking one of his novels an artistic success, and we see how he craves recognition. Talbot, like Walpole, was miserable at school, struggles to find acceptance, and literary success at first. There is also a rather fascinating brief passage in which Talbot dissects the qualities of the 1935 David Copperfield adaptation that Walpole himself had written:

It’s a long picture, Copperfield. Little Bartholomew and Rathbone as Murdstone were as good as ever. Pity they had to get an American for Micawber. The first half of the picture is much the best.

I was also struck by the rather open discussion of sex, lust, and frankness about infidelity that runs throughout the novel. These themes are not unique to this book, but it avoids euphemism in many instances, addressing the themes quite directly. Jimmie’s lust for life and sex is mirrored by Talbot’s inexperience and discomfort, leading the latter to settle for a loveless, unequal marriage which he enters despite his bride’s warning that she doesn’t love him, hoping that his love will eventually be reciprocated.

There was even some suggestion of erotic undertones to the pair’s relationship. One of the inciting incidents that sets Talbot against Jimmie is the trauma of the latter exposing him while getting changed for swimming, and we are told that Talbot is deeply uncomfortable with Jimmie’s touch. The relationship between the pair is highly controlling, with Jimmie delighting in Talbot’s discomfort and talking of possessing him and discussing the especial bond they share. When Jimmie discovers Talbot’s writing, he suggests the introduction of ‘a bit of skirt’ to liven things up, and he delights in causing Talbot great discomfort with graphic descriptions of his infidelities. It is as though Jimmie recognizes that Talbot is either asexual or homosexual and is taking pleasure at teasing him, knowing that Talbot is too uptight to recognize it in himself.

The early chapters of the book set up the building tension between the pair and the specific circumstances that will lead to murder. That moment is really quite dramatically and suddenly realized, the circumstances fitting Talbot’s character really well while also setting up a little intrigue that will be used later in the story.

The focus of the narrative though is not on the murder itself but the transformation that occurs to Talbot afterwards. Talbot who has seemed uptight, prim, and awkward up until this point, becomes coarser, lustier, and warmer in his relationships with others. There are some predictable ways that this plays out but also some more interesting and subtle ones, like the shift in his marriage and relationship with his son. Walpole portrays that shift very effectively, using it to suggest a sense of liberation for his protagonist, not dissimilar to how murder alters the protagonist in Simon Brett’s much later book, A Shock to the System.

We can take a supernatural reading of what happens and suggest that Talbot has been possessed by Jimmie’s spirit. Certainly many of his behaviors seem to evoke things Jimmie would say or do, and others perceive the increased similarities too. At times Talbot starts to act contrary to his wishes, almost as if he is struggling to control an external force that is making him act a certain way. Another, more psychological reading would be that Talbot has experienced a mental break, caused by the stresses of what he has done, and it has resulted in some split within his personality. Guilt makes him imagine his victim and he is, to some degree, punishing himself by destroying the things that he loves the most.

Here, once again, I was reminded of Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (a book I need to reread and write about at some point soon). That story split its narrative in two, presenting two different readings of action, one psychological and the other supernatural. In contrast, Walpole combines his two narratives into one, having the character himself represent his perceptions of what is happening to him while occasionally giving us perspectives of others in conversation. This works very well as it embraces the strengths of the first person perspective, showing us what Talbot believes is happening while acknowledging that he might simply be going mad.

The final aspect of this book that I want to reflect on is its discussion of World War II and specifically of Hitler. The events of the first half of the book take place over a span of years starting with Talbot’s childhood and moving through his marriage into midlife. Hitler gets his first mention after Jimmie has returned into his life, with Talbot reflecting on the uncertainties of the world and thinking unhappily of Hitler ‘planning cold ruin and bitter destruction’.

The next mention happens after Talbot has committed his murder and is pondering just why he is changing. He tells us that for years he had hated the Nazis ‘almost with hysteria’ but when he hears two elderly people raging about Hitler, he begins to feel compelled to defend him, wishing to argue that Germany has been wronged and that she had to act to do what’s best for their country. Later in the novel he becomes more outspoken and full-throated in his advocacy of Hitler and his ideas, drawing considerable disapproval, and describes himself as ‘Hitler’s forerunner of vengeance’.

Talbot sees parallels between himself and Hitler. He is sympathetic to him because Talbot wants to justify his own actions. Aggression, in his case cold-blooded murder, was required because of a wider, unfair situation. He is asserting that he had to do what was needed for his family’s interests – to protect his son from Jimmie’s influence and his wife from being seduced. Acts of aggression are, he thinks, justified by being treated poorly and ‘spat on’.

Towards the end of the novel Walpole has one of the most likeable characters in the novel directly confront Talbot, forcefully condemning Hitler as one of the ‘strongest instruments of evil the world has seen for hundreds of years’, and telling him he must reject that same evil inside himself. This moment was not only necessary from the point of providing a condemnation of a regime with which Britain was at war, it also ties back into the novel’s theme that the potential for evil lies within everyone.

This brings me to the least satisfying part of the novel, that of its end. Having realized his themes, Walpole has to provide a resolution to his narrative but that presents some challenges. One is that its ending cannot really surprise while staying true to its themes. That doesn’t necessarily bother me – I often enjoy seeing an inevitable ending realized – but the issue here is one of execution. A decision taken at the end requires Walpole to abruptly shift to a different storytelling style and it feels a little clumsy and awkward, particularly given how quickly he wraps everything up. Had the author used other storytelling styles earlier in the novel, this shift would have felt less stark, but the execution here feels quite sudden and inelegant in consequence.

In spite of my disappointment in its last few pages, I have to say that I view this book as a triumph and that this has been one of the most engaging reads I’ve undertaken on this project so far. Though it is not in any way a detective story, I appreciate its focus on developing and exploring its protagonist and admire the quality of storytelling on display. I’ll be curious to read more Walpole in the future, though I know only a fraction of his work lies within the genre. If anyone has any recommendations I’d be glad of them.

The Detection Club Project: Victor Whitechurch – Murder at the Pageant

Investigating the Detection Club - a series of posts exploring works written by members of the famous club for writers of mystery fiction.

#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!

The Detection Club Project: John Rhode – The Claverton Affair

Investigating the Detection Club - a series of posts exploring works written by members of the famous club for writers of mystery fiction.
Image Credit: John Rhode (Cecil John Charles Street) by Howard Coster (1930) © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

#11: John Rhode

He possessed enough scientific, medical and practical know-how to set in motion an almost never-ending conveyer belt of ingenious methods for committing murder.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

I had expected that this next installment of my Detection Club series would feature Victor Whitechurch but issues with my copy of Murder at the Pageant left me scrambling for a replacement copy (thankfully on its way) and a new subject to profile. Fortunately I happen to have rather a lot of John Rhode novels on my TBR pile

Rhode, born Cecil John Charles Street, was one of the more prolific members of the Detection Club. Though he was late to start writing mystery fiction, beginning in his 40s, he would write over one hundred and forty novels in about thirty five years, utilizing multiple pen names to do so. Of these the most famous were John Rhode and Miles Burton though he also wrote as Cecil Waye.

Spiderman Pointing Image - labeled as John Rhode, Miles Burton and Cecil Waye

In spite of the length of his career, outlasting many of his peers in the Detection Club, Rhode’s reputation would be strongly affected by Julian Symon’s categorization of him as a “humdrum” writer. There is a value judgement to that phrase that I think is rather unfair but there is some truth to the broader suggestion that his work was antithetical to the type of stories contemporary crime writers were creating towards the end of his long career. He did not, for instance, show much interest in exploring the social issues around crime and his characters are often quite functional, defined by their professions and roles in the story rather than their own personalities.

Instead Rhode’s interest lay in the technical challenges of puzzle design – an area in which he could be quite masterful. While the quality of his output could vary, he crafted some truly ingenious murder puzzles that often utilized unusual and unexpected murder methods leaving the reader wondering how the murder was done.

I have previously read several works by this author both from his Dr. Priestley series (written as Rhode) and the Desmond Merrion series (as Burton) including several from the period before this blog began. While I have to acknowledge that this is only a fraction of his output and I may come across works to change my mind, at this time I have a pretty strong preference for the Rhode stories.

My reason is that I really like the somewhat fussy scientist who typically plays armchair sleuth, giving advice to the professional police to get their floundering investigations back on track. I enjoy the character’s logical approach to breaking down problems which, to my mind, really suits the types of ingenious puzzles Rhode tended to construct.

Today’s read, The Claverton Affair, is a good example of the author’s skill at constructing that type of puzzle. Though it is not an inverted mystery, readers may well have a pretty good idea of who is responsible for the crime from the outset of the investigation. The focus therefore is not on whodunnit but how and the answer, as is typical of Rhode, is quite remarkable…

The Claverton Affair by John Rhode

Originally published in 1933
Dr. Priestley #15
Preceded by The Motor Rally Mystery
Followed by The Venner Crime

After drifting apart from Sir John Claverton, Dr. Lancelot Priestley is finally visiting his old friend for dinner. But Claverton’s situation is worrying. He’s surrounded by relatives, among them a sister who speaks to the dead—but not to him—and a niece who may or may not be a qualified nurse. Based on Claverton’s odd behavior, Priestley and a mutual friend suspect that someone is slipping him arsenic.

But when Priestley discovers that Claverton has died just a week later and shares his concerns with the police, no trace of arsenic—or anything else untoward—is found during the autopsy. Still, the perceptive professor can’t shake his sense that something isn’t right, and Claverton’s recently revised will only adds to the mystery . . .

This novel finds Dr. Priestley visiting an old friend, Sir John Claverton at his invitation. Over the years the pair have fallen out of touch and Priestley has some misgivings about resuming the friendship but when he arrives he finds a strange atmosphere in the home and his friend recovering from a bout of sickness. As he bids farewell with a promise to return the following week, Priestley speaks with Claverton’s physician who confides that while his patient is on the path to recovery, he believes that someone gave him arsenic.

When Priestley returns the following week he discovers that Claverton had died shortly before while his doctor was away. He decides he must share the information about the earlier attempted poisoning, expecting that the medical examination will reveal signs of arsenical poisoning, but it surprised when there are no signs of the poison. Priestley is certain that his old friend was murdered – the question is: how was it done?

One of the things I really like about the setup for The Claverton Affair is its subversion of our expectations. We come to the novel expecting that we will quickly learn the way Claverton was murdered and try to work out whodunnit but instead a large part of the case will involve overcoming the evidence that seems to suggest a natural death. This is not dissimilar to the setup found in Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death, though I would suggest that this has the more technically creative solution, for better and worse.

The problem with any puzzle that has a very technical solution, as we saw with my previous Detection Club Project title, The Documents in the Case by Sayers and Robert Eustace, is that when a problem requires some technical knowledge the author either has to make an effort to subtly provide that to the reader or else you run the risk that you get a puzzle that doesn’t feel fair. I think an argument could be made that Rhode doesn’t explain every element of his solution prior to its reveal. The key elements however are all easily identified and, I would argue, the reader ought to be able to work out most of the solution even if they do not possess the technical expertise to solve it in its entirety.

Indeed a large part of Rhode’s skill as a mystery writer is taking a technical problem with medical or scientific elements like the one presented here and making it accessible. His characters often speak in a rather dry and mannered way but while that doesn’t feel like natural dialogue, it is essential for clean, clear distribution of key points of information.

A strong example of that can be found here in the conversations concerning the autopsy. Rhode clearly outlines what the tests for arsenical poisoning are in an exchange between Priestley and the police pathologist as the latter walks Priestley through those tests as he repeats them for his benefit. The exchange is somewhat redundant – the latter acknowledges that Priestley likely knows just as much if not more than him about those tests – but it occurs primarily for the benefit of the reader and to demonstrate conclusively to us that it is not a case of a test not being run or scientific incompetence.

This brings me to one of the differences between this and most of the other Priestley stories I have read before; in The Claverton Affair our sleuth is unusually active both in finding the case for himself and working to collect evidence. Typically Priestley behaves as an armchair detective, listening to the accounts of others and then pointing out the type of evidence he would like the police to look for. The initial setup here does include someone bringing their concerns of foul play to him but the difference is that once this happens he becomes personally involved in gathering that evidence.

Priestley is not a natural lead investigator in large part because of his personality. His fussiness and attention to detail wouldn’t be an asset in the type of story where he has to conduct lots of interviews, befriend witnesses and so forth. He is perfectly suited however for this sort of story in which he has to find the small details and inconsistencies, interacting primarily with medical professionals to spot the evidence that will enable him to prove murder.

As I have found with other Rhode stories, the personalities of the suspects here are not particularly noteworthy. While the family members do make an impression when they are first introduced for not being very talkative, I don’t feel that they have particularly strong personalities. One of them however does have an interesting background that Rhode will utilize: working as a medium.

The séance is one of those great tropes of the Golden Age that when done well, as it is here, can really elevate a story. This is no exception. Rhode not only does a good job of using it to create an atmosphere but the device also plays an important role in advancing the story, particularly as we reach the novel’s conclusion.

That conclusion is both dramatic and interesting, providing a very satisfying conclusion to what is one of the most intriguing Priestley cases I have read to date. While I was able to work out a few key points of the crime, the actual method used caught me by surprise (and, I should note, I did know a crucial piece of information prior to reading it so I could well have got to it if the idea had ever occurred to me).

The Verdict: One of the more successful Dr. Priestley stories I have read offering a curious puzzle with a rather ingenious solution. While the sleuth is rather unusually active in this investigation, it offers a good example of Rhode’s most notable attributes as a writer – his ingenuity and ability to convey technical information clearly so that even those with no scientific ability (i.e. me) should have no difficulty following the solution.

Second Opinions: The Puzzle Doctor @ In Search of the Classic Mystery considered this an interesting take on the impossible crime.

Nick Fuller @ The Grandest Game in the World, who is far better read in Rhode than me, describes this as ‘One of Rhode’s undoubted classics’. He also notes that the atmosphere generated in this story is unusual for the author.

Interested in purchasing this book to read yourself? While there hasn’t been a new physical edition of this book in a while, the title was recently republished by Mysterious Press as an eBook (cover page pictured above) complete with introduction from Dr. Curtis Evans.

The Detection Club Project – Robert Eustace: The Documents in the Case

#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.

The Detection Club Project – R. Austin Freeman: The Mystery of 31 New Inn

#9: R. Austin Freeman

Freeman’s precise literary style, like his calligraphic handwriting, suggests a dry, painstaking man, more comfortable with microscope and test tube than the ebb and flow of human emotions. In fact, he was a romantic whom women found highly attractive, but his personable manner concealed a streak of ruthlessness.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

I first became aware of R. Austin Freeman because of his significance to the development of the inverted mystery story which he claimed to have invented with his story story The Case of Oscar Brody in his short story collection The Singing Bone. I have suggested before that this is possibly a little misleading as there are a number of earlier stories that have the reader follow a criminal in devising and committing a crime, but Freeman does provide an innovation in showing that a crime writer can maintain interest and suspense in showing the detective piecing together a puzzle whose solution we already know. Later writers in that subgenre like Freeman Wills Crofts and E. & M. A. Radford as well as the TV series Columbo owe a considerable debt to R. Austin Freeman’s approach.

Freeman’s first efforts in the field of mystery fiction were short stories, penned along with fellow medic John James Pitcairn under the pseudonym Clifford Ashdown. These stories followed the roguish conman Romney Pringle who apparently uses his observational, scientific and deductive skills to track down other criminals.

He found his greatest literary success a few years later however with the publication of The Red Thumb Mark, the first of the Dr. Thorndyke stories. These stories are at first glance reminiscent of Doyle’s Holmes adventures, particularly in the way that the sleuth takes a small number of physical clues and uses them to construct elaborate theories or explanations of puzzling situations but there are some important differences.

The first is that the Thorndyke stories feel far less sensationalist with less of a focus on surprising the reader. One of the things that I feel defines Freeman from earlier writers is his dedication to the idea of fair play – being careful to point out the clues that Thorndyke will use and to give the reader time to consider their importance. As a case in point, Freeman includes a note at the start of The Mystery of 31 New Inn to explain that he has tested a key concept used in the novel and can attest to its practicality.

The way Thorndyke acquires and processes that evidence is also somewhat different. While Holmes may talk of methodically eliminating possibilities, there are times where the conclusions that are reached from evidence may feel rather arbitrary. In contrast, Thorndyke carefully assembles facts, conducts tests and assesses how his findings alter the likelihood of his theories being correct. Accordingly his progress can be slower and less dramatic but that is no bad thing for those who enjoy playing at being an armchair detective as it allows the reader additional time to consider the solution.

The other significant difference is that Thorndyke is a considerably warmer character than the often misanthropic Holmes. Freeman’s detective is apparently quite handsome and also quite personable both towards his friends and also those he comes into contact with in his investigations. For Freeman though the point of interest is in the science rather than the character of his sleuth and while I quite enjoy Thorndyke’s company, I read Freeman primarily for his plots.

Martin Edwards’ history of the Detection Club contains a good amount of discussion of Freeman’s background and character with a particular focus on his enthusiasm for eugenics in the period between the wars. One of the things he notes was that Freeman authored a book on the topic, Social Decay and Regeneration, which he felt prouder of than his many mystery novels. While he was not alone in his beliefs, he was certainly in a minority within the Detection Club and Edwards provides a couple of examples from the works of Sayers and Christie skewering those expressing such views.

The work I selected to read for this project was one of Freeman’s earlier Dr. Thorndyke mysteries, The Mystery of 31 New Inn. I ended up opting for this one over some of his later works partly out of a sense of intrigue at the story’s premise but also because it is a work in the American public domain, meaning that it is easily accessible. Given that many of the posts in this series, at least in the immediate future, will require sourcing out of print and rare works, it is nice to be able to point to a work that everyone can obtain easily. As it happens, I also think it is a strong example of the author’s style…

The Mystery of 31 New Inn by R. Austin Freeman

Originally published in 1912
Dr. Thorndyke #4
Preceded by The Eye of Osiris
Followed by The Singing Bone

A man falls gravely ill, but is reluctant to call a doctor. As his condition worsens, he is eventually forced to seek medical aid—but he does so only under the condition that the physician does not learn his identity or address. Dr. Jervis is therefore transported to the man’s home in a 4-wheeled cab with tightly closed shutters. When he arrives, the doctor finds that the patient—who has been introduced with a pseudonym—exhibits all of the signs of morphine poisoning. But the sick man’s caretaker assures Jervis that this is outside the realm of possibility. Knowing neither the patient’s real name nor where he lives, Jervis feels both helpless and puzzled, so he consults his friend Dr. John Thorndyke. Versed in the nuances of medicine and law, Thorndyke is the only person who can solve this cryptic case.

The Mystery of 31 New Inn begins by reintroducing the reader to Dr. Jervis who is covering a fellow doctor’s practice which he is away. He receives a visit from a man who has been sent to summon him to assist a reluctant patient. The sick man, who is apparently highly mistrusting of doctors, has apparently only consented to be seen if his physician does not know his identity or the location of his home. Jervis is not pleased at the conditions but agrees to attend. When he does he is shocked by the patient’s condition, suspecting morphine poisoning. Feeling unsure of what to do given the strange circumstances of the case, Jervis seeks Dr. Thorndyke’s advice.

As it happens Dr. Thorndyke is about to embark on a puzzling case of his own. It concerns the recent death of a man who for reasons unknown decided to write and sign a new will with almost identical terms to one already in existence. There is one issue with the wording of the document however that proves highly significant because just hours before his death, the deceased unexpectedly inherited a sizeable sum of money which thanks to the change in wording would go to the estate’s executor rather than the heir…

Freeman thus provides the reader with two points of interest to hook them. Of these I found Dr. Jervis’ experience to be the more intriguing and atmospheric, helped by the thick mist and the candlelit visit, while Thorndyke’s problem appealed more as a puzzle. This is not a reflection on the complexity of the case but rather the curious details and contradictions present in its setup with the two very similar wills.

The Mystery of 31 New Inn is not intended to be an inverted mystery but I will say that the villain’s identity will be pretty obvious to the reader from the start, even if it is surprising to those involved in the case. Part of that is structural – there are some assumptions that the reader is likely to make because they are familiar with the genre and its tricks. It is also a matter of logic – once some facts are established the reader can pretty quickly reach some further conclusions through application of reasoning. This is not, as I suggested in my introduction, a bad thing but it does increase the likelihood that the reader will spend much of the novel ahead of the detectives. The question therefore is whether the story can hold the reader’s attention in spite of many of its secrets seeming quite apparent.

The joy in this work is not in any moment of surprise but in the quality of the construction. Even if the reader can identify the villain of the piece from near the novel’s start, there are still plenty of aspects of the puzzle left to resolve and that process can be quite satisfying.

One of my favorite clues is introduced in the novel’s seventh chapter and it offers a great example of the way Freeman handles his clues. He begins by introducing the clue – in fact in some editions, though sadly not the one pictured above, providing an illustration of it alongside the text (these are present in the Project Gutenberg copy). Thorndyke acknowledges the significance of the clue but does not explain it at first, giving Dr. Jervis and the reader time to consider its meaning. Then some possible implications are given and it will later be considered in conjunction with other clues Thorndyke has gathered. It can be a rather slow process but it’s a meticulous one and it does mean that the reader who values fair play is truly catered for.

Similarly I was impressed by Freeman’s attention to detail in the way he describes how some aspects of detection work. There is one process Thorndyke employs (the one referenced in the author’s note at the start of the book) that is particularly interesting and where there was some potential for confusion. Freeman does an excellent job however of carefully walking the reader through each step of the process to the point where I think the attentive reader could probably reproduce it for themselves – a pretty impressive feat!

As informative as it is, I must admit that Freeman’s prose is sometimes a little stiff and functional. This is good from the point of view of clarity but it also contributes to the sense that this reads like a late Victorian novel. Ultimately that didn’t bother me too much but I would suggest that if you come away from this wanting to read more Freeman it won’t be because of his narrative flair.

Still, the solution to the story is very tidy and Freeman does a good job of having Thorndyke walk the reader through the chain of reasoning they should have followed, carefully laying out the connections between each fact to build a complete picture of what had happened and the reasons for it. While there are few surprises, I enjoyed both the careful explanation of the crucial points of the case and also the reactions of the people he is explaining those facts to. My only disappointment there is that the aftermath of the reveal feels rather rushed and perhaps a little unsatisfying given it is recounted to the reader after it has happened.

As underwhelming as the coda to the investigation may be, I have to stress that I enjoyed the bulk of the book up to that point. While The Mystery of 31 New Inn may not be one of the toughest or most colorful cases to solve that you will ever read, it is told in an engaging way, encouraging the reader to figure out all of the connections between the various clues. More than anything it has reminded me that I want to seek out more Freeman in the future so expect further posts on his works to follow in the next few months!

The Verdict: A very solid, logical case hinges on a couple of excellent clues and one quite magnificent one. While Freeman’s writing style can be a little bland and functional, his plot construction was strong and those skills are in clear evidence here. Expect me to return to Freeman repeatedly over the next few months…

Second Opinions

JJ @ The Invisible Event was also a fan of the journey that Freeman takes us on here, noting that “the journey with all its rigour and care is sheer manna from heaven for those of us with the taste for such undertakings.”

The Detection Club Project: Helen Simpson – The Prime Minister is Dead

#8: Helen Simpson

Image Credit: Helen de Guerry Simpson by Howard Coster © National Portrait Gallery, London, licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

Tall and pale, with thick dark wavy hair, Helen de Guerry Simpson was an astonishingly high achiever, who seemed to dedicate her life to proving that a woman could have it all.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

You may recall that when I wrote my post about Clemence Dane a few months ago as part of this series, I noted that I had struggled with the decision as to whether to write a single profile with her and Helen Simpson. The reason for considering doing that is that most of their detective fiction output was the result of collaborating with each other.

Indeed there seems to have been some speculation whether Simpson was actually a full member of the Detection Club in her own right as she is described as an ‘associate member’ in a contemporary list of members. Martin Edwards notes though in his survey of the history of the Detection Club, The Golden Age of Murder, that she was eminently qualified for membership in her own right and that her interest in the genre outlasted that of her writing partner.

One sign of that is that while Dane only wrote mysteries in collaboration, Simpson did write a mystery novel on her own and contributed to several of the Club’s collaborative works. She also was friendly with Dorothy L. Sayers, one of the leading members of the Detection Club, and was collaborating with her on a history of Lord Peter.

The portrait of Simpson in The Golden Age of Murder is not particularly lengthy but does a good job of giving a sense of her abilities and wide range of interests which included witchcraft and smoking cigars. One of those passions was politics which we will see reflected in the book discussed below…

The Prime Minister is Dead by Helen Simpson

Following the publication of Enter Sir John and Printer’s Devil, Helen Simpson went on to write this novel which was originally published in the UK as Vantage Striker in 1931. As you can see I have opted to use its American title for this post. That partly is to acknowledge the edition that I read but mostly it’s because I think the original title is terrible, conveying little sense of what the book is actually about to those unfamiliar with the term.

The novel is one of those which arguably exists on the edge of the genre. It is a story about a murder, its investigation and the resolution of the case yet that detective process never feels like the focus of the book. Rather I would suggest that the book feels like it is most concerned with exploring the political fallout from an event of the type depicted and working through how the establishment might respond to such a situation.

We begin shortly after the conclusion of a party leadership election in which a new Prime Minister, Mr. Aspinall, has been selected. That person was not regarded as the best or brightest but rather an affable and inoffensive lightweight. The assumption is that the runner-up, the International Secretary Justin Brazier, will resign. Instead he stubbornly holds onto his office while making it quite clear that he does not approve of his new leader. A political crisis seems to be in the offing so Aspinall decides he will try and reach out, arranging a private meeting between them over dinner. Rather than bridging their divide, the evening ends with Aspinall dead from a head injury.

One of the reasons that this story struck me as being on the edge of the genre was that it takes a really long time to get to its death and even once we do, it is several chapters before the manner of that death is ever described to the reader. Instead Simpson places the focus on establishing the professional relationships between the various characters. There are several lengthy sporting sequences – one that takes place in a boxing match, the other tennis – which serve as analogies of sorts to the situation being constructed. Both are solidly described though I felt both went on a little longer than I desired.

Those political relationships are quite interesting however and I appreciated the often witty observations and commentaries Simpson offers on politicians and elective office. It’s by no means razor sharp satire, but Simpson is thoughtful about her topic and does a good job creating credible characters to explore those issues with.

As I suggested earlier, I do feel that there are some issues with the pacing of this story if we are trying to read it as a work of mystery fiction. One of these is that Simpson devotes so much time to setting up her scenario that the murder sequence and investigation feel very short in comparison to the point of being rushed. This strikes me as a shame because when Simpson finally does have those elements in place in the final few chapters of her story, she does use them well to create a very interesting and original conclusion.

Unfortunately though it is rushed and there is little sport to be had in trying to play along with this one. Simpson offers little in the way of credible misdirection, leaving the murderer quite visible and easy to identify from an early point in the story. It perhaps doesn’t help either that some assumptions that may have been outrageous and unthinkable in 1931 would represent our default mindset today, meaning that one reveal is unlikely to surprise quite as it would have done ninety years earlier.

The Prime Minister is Dead may not be a classic work of detective fiction but it does offer some points of interest, particularly for those with an interest in all things Westminster. It also demonstrates that the author was as comfortable creating a story in that setting as they had been in exploring the theatrical world in Enter Sir John.

The Verdict: More interesting for its depiction of Westminster than its rushed and ultimately unsatisfying murder plot.

Further Reading

Martin Edwards wrote about this book under its original UK title Vantage Striker on his blog and also featured the title in his book The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books.

The Detection Club Project: Freeman Wills Crofts – Crime at Guildford

Freeman Wills Crofts by Bassano Ltd, © National Portrait Gallery, London licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Crofts, like Rhodes, understood industry better than most detective novelists, and his descriptions of how businessmen (and they almost always were men) operate is as convincing as any of the period.

Martin Edwards, The Golden Age of Murder (2015)

Several years ago in anticipation of the first anniversary of starting doing this blog I began to compile some data about the books I had read and reviewed. I was quite surprised to learn that my most read author was not, as I expected, Agatha Christie or John Dickson Carr but an author that had been completely unknown to me when I began blogging – Freeman Wills Crofts.

The reason for the surprise was not just a matter of his profile but that my first few experiences of his writing were not overwhelming successes. My first few reviews, Antidote to Venom and The 12:30 From Croydon, praise aspects of the plotting but were less than complimentary about his series detective, Inspector French. In fact one of the reasons I recommended the latter was because it hardly featured him at all!

What I soon came to appreciate though was Crofts’ ingenuity and that he was one of a handful of writers who were laying the foundations for what would become the modern day police procedural. His plots are often inventive and feature enormous attention to detail both in the planning and detection. I rarely, if ever, come away from a Crofts novel with issues with the mechanics of the crime!

Arguably his flaws as a writer lie in his characters who can feel rather flat and functional, none more so than Inspector French. While other series detectives often suggest a life beyond their job, Inspector French seems to just love details and we rarely get a sense of his recreational time beyond an occasional mention of slippers, newspapers and his love of things mechanical (in the book I will be discussing below he says he has a small metalworking space which feels downright intimate by the author’s usual standards).

Perhaps it is a case of the character reflecting his creator. It was hard to find a good quote about Crofts in Martin Edwards’ The Golden Age of Murder, not because he isn’t mentioned but because he doesn’t seem to have prompted the sorts of strong feelings that a Gorell or Berkeley could do. Instead he comes off as decent, conscientious and hardworking with an appreciation for structure, mechanics and order – all of which is reflected in the works themselves.

While enormously popular in the twenties, Crofts fell out of the public eye in the decades that followed and was saddled with the label of being a ‘humdrum’ writer. I understand the complaint but I cannot agree with it because that term suggests staleness and repetition that I simply don’t see in the author’s work.

What excites me about Crofts and keeps me coming back to him again and again is that he doesn’t just adhere to a formula. Instead his style constantly evolves as he experiments and plays with new ideas. Take for example his handful of inverted mysteries, each of which is written in a completely different style and have distinctly different structures. Similarly you can find examples of traditional detective stories, thrillers, locked room mysteries and even a detective story for children.

Humdrum? Not he.

The Crime at Guildford by Freeman Wills Crofts

Originally published in 1935
Inspector French #13
Preceded by Mystery on Southampton Water
Followed by The Loss of the Jane Vosper
Also known as The Crime at Nornes

A weekend board meeting brings a jewellery firm’s accountant to the managing director’s impressive Guildford home. On the Sunday morning, he is found dead and is soon the subject of a murder inquiry by the local police. Meanwhile, Chief Inspector French is investigating the sensational burglary of half a million pounds’ worth of jewels from the safe of an office in London’s Kingsway. French must determine the connection between the theft and the murder as he embarks on a perilous chase to track down the criminals.

The Crime at Guildford turned out to be a great choice for this project as I think it perfectly illustrates almost every aspect of the author’s writing, both positive and negative. This starts with the choice of setting.

Like many of Crofts’ works, the case is involved with the world of business. In this case, a jewelry firm that has found itself in a precarious financial situation. The book begins with a private meeting between several of the most significant shareholders to coordinate an approach to take on the company’s financial troubles at the next meeting. There are several possibilities suggested. These include declaring bankruptcy and restructuring and issuing new shares but there is also an option to sell a large number of precious stones that the company has acquired over the years. Unable to reach an agreement, the group agree to spend a weekend together at one of their homes and they decide to invite along the company’s accountant to give them more information.

The weekend goes ahead but when the accountant is found dead in a guest bedroom in suspicious circumstances the local police are called in. Meanwhile Inspector French is called to the company when the safe is opened the next day and all the jewels of value are found to be missing. Believing the two cases to be linked, French tries to work out the nature of that connection…

Crofts is convincing in describing the practical workings of a business and does a good job of outlining the situation the company faces. While the shareholders themselves may seem a little stiff and formal, particularly in those early discussions, the concerns they voice are all easy to understand and we quickly gain a good understanding of the broader situation faced by the company and why the murder and the theft of the jewels could spell ruin.

There is also a lot of well-observed detail in the descriptions of the mechanism and business practices related to the company’s safe. The way that information is shared with the reader can sometimes feel a little dry but it is necessary to understand the nature of the problem that Inspector French will have to solve: how could a thief gain access to the safe when it required the use of two keys, both of which must have been with their respective holders attending the gathering. It also helps us to eliminate some possible explanations and focus our attention, perhaps a little artificially, on our smaller group of suspects.

French’s investigation is both slow and careful, as is his handling of those suspects. He isn’t prone to making wild accusations or impulsive decisions – instead he follows the evidence carefully, develops theories, tests them and refines them. It’s not necessarily the most explosive way to tell a story but interest is built by having the case slowly take shape and when movement toward the explanation is finally achieved, it feels truly earned.

The reason it feels earned is that the situation, while initially appearing quite simple, is anything but. Ideas that may make sense of one crime are usually incompatible with the other. The challenge of reconciling these two problems and building a model that will satisfy them both is a huge one and while the reader should prepare for a lot of false starts, the journey as a whole will be a satisfying one.

Those explanations are strikingly clever. Take for instance the question of how the safe was breached. The solution to that problem is highly creative and it certainly would work. I would actually go so far as to suggest that this is a rare instance of a technical solution that still feels as clever today as it must have done when it was written over eighty-five years ago.

Other aspects of the solution similarly impress but what really appeals to me is how logical it all is and how neatly everything seems to fit together. When the final piece to the puzzle is presented and things finally make sense, I felt both a huge sense of satisfaction at the tidiness of that solution and delight that it was predicated on a simple but clever idea that just hadn’t occured to me but is, in retrospect, obvious. That, for me, is the ideal in terms of plotting.

The Verdict: The Crime at Guildford is not the flashiest of reads (perhaps reflected in its rather bland title) but it is ultimately a very satisfying one and very illustrative of Crofts’ style as a writer.

The Detection Club Project: Lord Gorell

Banner: Investigating The Detection Club

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…

Lord Gorell

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.

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?

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat by Erle Stanley Gardner

Originally published in 1935
Perry Mason #7
Preceded by The Case of the Counterfeit Eye
Followed by The Case of the Sleepwalker’s Niece


In his will, Peter Laxter guaranteed his faithful caretaker a job and a place to live… for life. But Laxter’s grandson Sam says the deal doesn’t include the caretaker’s cat—and he wants the feline off the premises by hook, crook… or poison.

When Perry Mason takes the case, he quickly finds there’s much more at stake than an old man’s cat—a million dollars or more to be exact…

Last week I found myself picking up my first Perry Mason novel in quite some time. The break was unplanned and reflects more on my desire to discover new authors and characters but every now and again it’s nice to pick up a book and be sure you are going to have a great time with it.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat is fun from the very start. It opens with Perry agreeing to meet with an elderly man who has been sat waiting in his office on several occasions, insisting he needs to speak with Mason. He explains that his employer recently died and the terms of his will guaranteed the caretaker a job while he was able to work and a place to live once he retired. The employer’s grandson however has insisted that the provisions of the will did not extend to the caretaker’s cat and has vowed to kill it if he does not dispose of it.

Perry, sympathizing with the caretaker’s desire to be able to live with his feline companion, agrees to write a letter that he hopes will scare the grandson off. In it he brazenly suggests that any move against the cat would risk putting the man’s own inheritance in danger. He expects that to be an end to the matter and so he is surprised when the grandson and his lawyer turn up in his office in an argumentative mood. Before long Mason finds himself dug into his position and, ever keen to protect the interests of his client, he starts to dig into the circumstances of Peter Laxter’s death, soon turning up evidence of murder…

One of the most entertaining things about this book is the idea that a massive criminal case will emerge out of what is a pretty inconsequential dispute. While the nature of that dispute is, as is often the case with these stories, quirky and colorful, Gardner quickly and convincingly escalates that situation while never losing sight of the amusing idea that Perry has a cat for a client in this story.

This entry in the series also continues to explore the idea that Perry at this stage in his career is a scrapper by nature. When challenged as he is from an early point in this story, he chooses to act forcefully and often acts to provoke his opponents.

Perry could so easily be an obnoxious character. That confidence, so often manifesting itself in lengthy speeches to Della or Paul in which he talks passionately about what it means to be a lawyer, could read as smug and obnoxious were it not for the idea that he is championing the downtrodden and providing access to the protection offered by the law to all regardless of their wealth or station. That is shown here by his willingness to put himself to a great amount of inconvenience for what amounts to a $10 fee.

Gardner had packed his previous Mason novels with plenty of exciting and surprising developments but, compared to those, The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat seems all the more densely plotted. Each chapter seems to bring at least one new revelation or idea that changes your understanding of what has happened or what may happen in the future. Many of these are excellent and well-clued but there is a lot of detail about characters’ movements to absorb, some of which feels a little unnecessary.

Fortunately the concept of the crime is much more interesting and novel with the murderer employing a rather creative means to dispatch Peter Laxter. Readers should not expect Perry to deduce that method for himself – it is handed to him directly early in the book – but it is interesting to follow how he interprets and responds to that information. The alert reader may well detect other clues to what exactly is going on in interactions with those other suspects.

The issue is not the book’s ingenuity but rather that it can feel a little too clever and as if it is trying to do a little too much. Further murders follow but because they occur in such quick succession, not all of them left a big impact on me. In fact there was one point where I had to reread a section when I had forgotten that a character had died – it was not that the writing was unclear but simply that it was followed so quickly by another very dramatic moment.

Were this intended to be a fair play detection story, I might perhaps have felt frustrated by the complexity of the plotting. Read as a thriller however it makes for page-turning stuff. I loved the process of uncovering the truth behind the characters’ movements and the connections between the various elements of the plot. Yes, some parts of the plot are quite incredible but they are also highly entertaining.

The Case of the Caretaker’s Cat is unlikely to be in contention for Perry’s greatest case but it may be one of the most entertaining. From its rather amusing concept of Perry representing an animal client to some of the unexpected developments that complicate the case, the book is enormously entertaining and has some wonderfully colorful moments.

The Verdict: Is this Perry’s quirkiest client? It certainly seems that way to me. Boasting a strong case with a clever resolution, this was a real page turner.

The Innocence of Father Brown by G. K. Chesterton

Originally published in 1911
Collects short stories published in 1910 and 1911
Father Brown #1
Followed by The Wisdom of Father Brown

[…]In thrilling tales such as “The Blue Cross,” “The Secret Garden,” and “The Hammer of God,” G. K. Chesterton’s immortal priest-detective applies his extraordinary intuition to the most intricate of mysteries. No corner of the human soul is too dark for Father Brown, no villain too ingenious. The Innocence of Father Brown is a testament to the power of faith and the pleasure of a story well told.

A few weeks ago I shared an outline of my challenge to myself to read a work by each member of the Detection Club. The reason for this challenge was that I realized when reading The Golden Age of Murder, Martin Edwards’ excellent history of the Detection Club and the roles the members played in developing the detective fiction genre, that while I knew many of the names involved there were many whose work I had little to no knowledge of.

The most instrumental figures in the club’s founding seem to have been Berkeley and Sayers but being very familiar with their works already I thought it more fitting to start with the first President of the Detection Club, G. K. Chesterton. While I had read a couple of his short stories before they were in the context of a broader, thematic collection and so I felt like I had only a very basic impression of his work.

I asked followers on Twitter and readers of this blog for suggestions about what I should read and you returned a clear verdict that I ought to start with his Father Brown stories rather than his novels. Jonathan O had advised that the earlier volumes are stronger than some of the later ones so I opted to start at the very beginning with the first collection, The Innocence of Father Brown.

While there were Father Brown stories written during the Golden Age of Detection, the character was created several years before that era is commonly regarded as starting. While there are certainly detection elements to be found within a number of the stories in the collection, the style feels more reminiscent of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes tales in which the clues and deductions drawn from them are often delivered simultaneously. The reader is supposed to marvel at Father Brown’s unexpected ability to perceive the truth rather than beat him to it.

It is interesting to consider the contrast between Chesterton’s hero and the likes of Holmes and Dupin. Where those two men were brilliant to the point of exuding arrogance, Father Brown does not set himself up as an investigator and his manner is mild and unassuming. Indeed when we first encounter him in The Blue Cross the reader would have little sense he was to be the protagonist in a series of short stories – that role appears to be destined for the brilliant French investigator, Valentin.

Valentin feels like an amalgam of those two great detectives, complete with the added authority that comes from his position as the head of the Paris police. In this story he is shown to be highly competent and interestingly rather than diminishing his abilities to make Father Brown seem more intelligent (as I might argue sometimes happens with Holmes in his interactions with the Scotland Yard men), we see him live up to his reputation. What we see is that Valentin is smart but Brown, perhaps unexpectedly, is smarter.

The story is a fun one involving the hunt for a thief who has made his way to England. During the pursuit he comes across Father Brown who is transporting a valuable jeweled cross. Valentin suspects that a tall priest keeping company with Brown may be the criminal in disguise and follows the pair across the city but he cannot understand some of the curious things the pair do on their travels.

It’s an entertaining introduction to the character of Father Brown. The reader should not expect to be dazzled by any brilliant deductions though it is fun to learn the explanations for some of the things that happen.

The second story, The Secret Garden, also involves Valentin as a decapitated body is found in his garden during a social gathering. This one is more of a detective story than its predecessor and it has some clever ideas but I was unhappy with some elements of the solution. In particular, I felt that the motive here was really unconvincing.

The next tale, The Queer Feet, was much more to my taste as Father Brown finds himself in a very exclusive restaurant at the same time that a society of twelve – The Twelve True Fishermen – have their annual dinner. He hears a commotion and intervenes to prevent a crime from taking place.

As with The Blue Cross, this is once again more adventure than detective story. Brown is not acting in response to the observation of a crime scene but rather acts instinctively, based on his reading of people and his knowledge of criminals. It does do a good job of demonstrating his quick wits and of playing with the notion that appearances can be deceptive. It also features the most convincing example of an idea that I have seen used in a number of detective stories, including several times by Agatha Christie.

Perhaps what I like best of all though is Chesterton’s writing which is often very witty. The descriptions of the exclusivity of the setting are very amusing but what I liked most of all was the final statement delivered by Father Brown.

The Flying Stars are a set of jewels that are stolen during a social gathering while the attendees are watching a clown act. There is a nice callback in this story to the first as the thief is, once again, Flambeau (this is not spoiling anything – the story begins with Flambeau reflecting on the incident) and I liked that once again this is a story that showcases the personality of Father Brown. In particular, I appreciate the way he advocates for one suspect and then chooses to resolve this problem.

It is a shame given how much I enjoy some aspects of the resolution to this story that it contains some elements that I would describe as outdated and offensive. Nothing here is exceptional to the period in which it was written but there were several things that just didn’t set well with me: not least the merriment of the party at the idea of a performer blackening their skin with soot and Father Brown’s own statement that he had done so to amuse a group of children in the past.

The Invisible Man concerns the problem of how a man is murdered when the entrances to his house are under observation by the police. The best part of the story is the background to it as we learn the tale of the young woman and the two suitors who wanted to win her hand and, rejected, went off to make their fortunes. I am a little less convinced by the solution to this one and I feel that it may have benefited from a greater gap from a previous story in this collection. Still, it’s quite readable and while I think that solution is found quite quickly, it is at least clued.

The Honour of Israel Gow sees Father Brown and Flambeau, now an amateur detective, head to Scotland to investigate the death of an aristocrat and the strange condition of his family home. It’s a strange story, in part because the crime here is less clearly defined than in the previous stories but the explanation is clever and demonstrates an interesting sort of logical reasoning.

The next story, The Wrong Shape, is an example of a dying message story in which a man is found dead having written a message that appears to contradict himself claiming that he has committed suicide but also that he was murdered. It’s a well-told story, albeit one with a very simple solution that I have seen replicated. Perhaps not the best challenge in the collection but a good read regardless.

The Sins of Prince Saradine (which very nearly became The Sins of Prince Sardine courtesy of autocorrect) is a very entertaining tale in which Flambeau receives an invitation to meet with a prince of poor repute who is keen to learn about his past criminal exploits only for things to take an unexpected turn. There are some very amusing moments of which my favorite is easily the list of the things Flambeau had packed for his journey, and I think that this is a very cleverly structured tale.

I had actually read The Hammer of God some time ago as part of an anthology I never got around to reviewing. I wasn’t expecting great things in revisiting it so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a much more interesting story than I remembered. It concerns the death of a man who had been struck on the head with incredible force using a hammer.

What I liked most about this story was the logical way Father Brown points out the contradictions in some elements of the crime and reaches his conclusions. This is one of the best examples of a logical puzzle in the collection and while I don’t feel that an aspect of the ending is entirely deserved, I liked it a lot overall.

The Eye of Apollo concerns the bizarre death of an heiress who seems to have been part-way through writing her will before leaping to her doom. As a puzzle this story is quite nicely constructed, hingeing on a simple but clever idea. That solution is clued very neatly, making this one of the more rewarding cases in the collection.

The next story, The Sign of the Broken Sword, marks quite a departure in style from the other stories in this collection. It begins with Father Brown taking Flambeau to see the tomb of a fallen military hero and after making some cryptic remarks he starts to explain the man’s history, particularly the circumstances of his death during a conflict with Brazil.

Structurally this story is unusual because Brown begins the story possessing all of the information about the scenario – it’s the reader who is left to learn exactly what the mystery is that we must unravel and what the implications of that are. It’s a really interesting story – one that shows great insight into human nature and warfare – and the way it concludes is, for me, the most interesting character moment Father Brown has in the entire collection.

The final story, The Three Tools of Death, is also preoccupied with matters of psychology but I felt that it was less successful – even though the solution is much more surprising. The story concerns the death of a philanthropist known for his jolly demeanor.

Suspicion immediately falls upon one figure but we soon learn that the situation is not so simple as it appears. The explanation Chesterton comes up with is certainly imaginative but I found it too far-fetched as a sequence of events to be entirely credible and I would be shocked if anyone reached the solution. Still, I did appreciate the explanations for the actions of the various suspects and I found it entertaining in its ambition.

Reflecting on the collection overall, I was impressed by the diversity of story types on offer. Some are quirky or feature lower stakes, such as the theft of some jewel, while others feature much grander and more serious crimes. This keeps the collection from feeling repetitive and while I think Chesterton sometimes struggles to come up with a convincing rationale for his priest-sleuth to be involved (I am thinking most of The Queer Feet), the character’s actions and behavior often helps smooth over those doubts.

One of the preconceptions I had of Chesterton’s work based on my few previous experiences was that they were quite serious stories, in part because of the heavy moral and philosophical themes he includes. Instead I was surprised to find that he could be quite a light and witty writer and while those elements never dominate the stories, they often provide some relief to the often quite serious stories.

The other thing that surprised me was that in several of these stories Father Brown makes a very late appearance in the proceedings. This does tie in quite nicely to the book’s broader themes though and his interjections are typically interesting.

Finally, another request for your assistance with my project: while I have titles for the next few authors picked out I will need to plan ahead for some. Does anyone have any suggestions for what I should try to seek out by Lord Gorell? Money is very much an object so preferably something I have a hope of tracking down for a reasonable price (ie. less than $40).

The Verdict: An interesting, if uneven, collection of stories.