Murder First Class by Leonard Gribble

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

A vintage English murder mystery set onboard a moving train.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madame Bluebeard by Bruce Sanders

Originally Published 1951

I first learned of Madame Bluebeard in an advert in the back of a copy of Leonard Gribble’s The Inverted Crime. The copy assured me that the book would appeal to his fans presumably, though the advert didn’t state this, because the author Bruce Sanders was also the author Leonard Gribble. This fact passed me by however and so, intrigued by its premise and the (erroneous) idea that I would be trying a new author I sought out an affordable copy.

The novel begins with a West End agent summoning his nephew Brian Farrud to track down Jaline Grey, his most famous client and the star of the Madame Bluebeard films and stage plays who has unexpectedly walked out of her show and vanished. Brian decides to spin a story about a fictitious proposal from an Italian nobleman who has offered her the Brassogli trysting ring to explain her sudden disappearance.

Later Brian is accosted in the street and taken to a country house where he is questioned about this engagement. His captors reveal that she cannot be away while she mulls over the proposal because her body is in the next room. Soon after Anatole Fox, detective fiction author and the assistant director of the International Bureau of Crime Statistics, appears to investigate Brian’s story about the Brassogli trysting ring which he believes he invented and yet turns out to be a real piece of missing jewelry…

The description I give of the plot above only covers the first five or six chapters of the book and can only hint at the novel’s structure. The author constructs his story so that each chapter ends with a significant revelation or plot reversal, spinning the action off in a new direction or shifting our understanding of what is happening. The closest thing I have read to this is Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Skull of the Waltzing Clown and while I think this is less successful, it is hard not to be struck by the author’s ability to take this story to some really unexpected places.

The author achieves this through his characters’ near-constant movement and this, in turn, drives the plot. He cultivates the sense of a race against time as characters track down the answer to one question, at points moving between locations, only to discover a piece of information that prompts another dash for answers. Throughout the novel there is a sense that things develop not because they are logical outcomes of actions but to serve the need to end each chapter with some new revelation. All this frantic movement makes the piece feel unpredictable while some plot developments feel quite far-fetched. I think it is fair to say that it would be impossible for a reader to anticipate any part of the eventual explanation until they are a significant way into the book.

Just as the plot suffers for a lack of focus, the novel also has problems with its protagonist. There are two characters who might conceivably be considered to be the leading figures within the narrative – the young agent Brian and Anatole, the crime writer. On paper both characters ought to be quite appealing but here too I felt a little disappointed.

Of the pair, Brian is a more recognizable type being established as a slick, professional media relations specialist. I actually warmed to him almost immediately as we read how he works to spin Jaline Grey’s disappearance and I quite enjoyed his surprise at discovering that something he believed he had invented appears to exist. But then he largely disappears, ceasing to drive the narrative.

Instead Anatole becomes our point of focus but where Brian was a recognizable type, Anatole feels strangely remote as though we are being kept at arm’s length from him with the author not really sharing the character’s thinking or state of mind with the reader. For instance Anatole’s motives in pursuing the case are kept back for the reader for some time after his first introduction and neither character struck me as being particularly charming or appealing.

All that being said, the novel does pull off a few pretty exciting moments and revelations. The author lays the groundwork early on for several developments that will take place later in the story and while I think that some aspects of the plotting at times feel a little silly and far-fetched, I did appreciate that many of those moments seem to be supported by the text.

The problem for me was that I was unable to look past some of the more sensational elements and ideas within this plot. At no point did I ever really believe in any of these characters, nor did I find the explanation convincing even if the author did provide clues to support it. The constant movement and string of revelations may distract the reader from some of those issues but in the quieter moments I couldn’t help but reflect on some of the bizarre choices characters made and some really unlikely plot developments which only served to pull me out of the story.

Though it has a few points of interest unfortunately I think it is the least successful of the three books I have read from this author to date.