Murder First Class by Leonard Gribble

Book Details

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

The Blurb

A vintage English murder mystery set onboard a moving train.

The Verdict

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


My Thoughts

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 Inverted Crime by Leonard Gribble

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The Inverted Crime
Leonard Gribble
Originally Published 1954
Inspector Slade #21
Preceded by She Died Laughing
Followed by Death Pays the Piper

Earlier this year I had my first encounter with Leonard Gribble and his series sleuth Anthony Slade when I reviewed The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, a novel which was recently reissued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. When I finished reading I took a look at what else they had written and this book jumped out at me for an obvious reason (for those new to the blog, I kind of like inverted mysteries). Could Leonard Gribble have actually penned an inverted mystery?

Well, no. The Inverted Crime is a fairly traditional puzzle mystery, albeit one with slightly unusual pacing and structural choices. The title comes from an observation Slade makes when he first sees the crime scene that the evidence appears to be the wrong way around both literally and figuratively although it takes some time for him to explain precisely what he means by that and its implications for solving the case.

Superintendent Anthony Slade is approached by Colonel Vane, a man he worked with in the War Office’s Special Intelligence Branch, with a request for help. His nephew has become attached to a woman who is married to Lancelot Lavesty, a man with a scandalous reputation as a womanizer. Though he is frequently unfaithful, Lavesty is unwilling to consider a divorce and Vane is concerned that the affair will soon become a matter of public scandal.

What prompts Vane approaching Slade however is that his nephew has been invited to a house party with Lavesty. The concern is that the two men’s feud may become increasingly heated and that they may become murderous unless a third party is present to keep the pair in check. Slade agrees to attend the party in a private capacity but it seems his presence has had little effect when Lavesty is found shot dead in a boathouse.

The circumstances of the shooting seem a little odd with some physical details of the scene and the condition of the corpse making little sense. For instance, Lavesty has bruising on his face suggesting he was knocked down yet he was shot implying that the murderer came armed. If that was the case though, why not just shoot Lavesty rather than attacking him first?

Making sense of this sequence of events is key to solving the mystery but there is an obstacle in Slade’s path: the local police refuse to call in Scotland Yard so his presence here is strictly unofficial. Sure, Frampton who leads the investigation calls him in at points but he also cuts him out of aspects of the case and makes it clear that he has no authority. Slade decides to look into things regardless but that means he has to conduct his investigation discretely to avoid tipping him off.

I mentioned early in the review that this novel has a slightly unorthodox structure and set of story beats and I think that this relationship between Frampton and Slade is one of the causes of that. Because he is involved only in an unofficial capacity we get little in the way of formal interviews with the suspects and so much of what we do get comes in the form of observations or reported conversations.

There are other ways too in which this story defies the typical structure of a puzzle mystery such as the speed at which the material facts of the murder are established. Within pages of the novel starting we are given a lot of information about the eventual victim, his lifestyle and relationships with others in the house and neighborhood. We are led to expect fireworks between the two men and yet the details of the party are skipped entirely to bring us to the moment where the body is found. It feels rather abrupt and inelegantly handled though I did appreciate the way it causes us to focus on the evidence at the scene rather than our details of events leading up to the moment that the crime was committed.

Gribble also takes the fairly unusual step of slimming down his cast of suspects pretty quickly after the moment in which the murder is committed. Rather than forcing all of the guests to hang around and play a role, those who have no role to play are permitted to return home and we are left with a small core of characters to pick from.

It is quite striking too that Gribble clearly establishes several characters as being roguish or unscrupulous from the moment that they first appear. I found this to be an interesting, if not wholly effective choice. Because there is little attempt made to provide them with a veneer of charm or gentility, these characters read a little flat. I think Gribble makes up for this later with some of his other characters but for the most part I never really felt we get to know them.

Still, Slade knows who these suspect individuals are and so rather than following a typical path of gathering clues and carrying out interviews he follows them and discretely observes their actions. It almost reads like a (rather gentle) thriller except that the reader will likely realize that there must be more going on here and look behind the case as it appears to figure out just what is happening and why.

Happily the explanation of what has happened is much more interesting than the process of Slade’s investigation and this gives the final few chapters a strong impact as he pieces the case together. I think that the sequence of events, while quite complicated, makes a lot of sense of the crime scene and brings things to a very neat conclusion. It is not only well-reasoned and easily visualized, there are aspects of the ending that struck me as extremely satisfying dramatically. It is certainly far more interesting than the plot as it appears for much of the novel.

Unfortunately as strong as the end point of the journey is, we do have to take account of the path to that point and here I think the book lets itself down. Though some parts of the story are intriguing and dramatic, the middle of the book sags with its repetitive and uninspired investigation scenes while the abrupt opening feels a little awkward.

The result is an interesting but somewhat uneven read. I did appreciate the chance to see some of Gribble’s range as a storyteller however and I will certainly be keeping a lookout for other Slade stories in the future.

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery by Leonard Gribble

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The Arsenal Stadium Mystery
Leonard Gribble
Originally Published 1939
Superintendent Slade #11
Preceded by Who Killed Oliver Cromwell?
Followed by Tragedy in E Flat

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is a novel set against the backdrop of a sporting event but that does not mean that it is a sports novel. Indeed, with the exception of a few pages of action prior to the murder you will not need to worry about positions, the offside rule or cups of steaming Bovril (unless that is your beverage of choice while reading Golden Age crime novels).

I would say that the author, Leonard Gribble, is entirely new to me but I realized when tagging this post that I had read one of his short stories in The Long Arm of the Law, a collection of police tales also issued as part of the British Library Crime Classics range. That had been a largely forgettable affair lacking in any distinctive incident or character – certainly not a complaint I would level against this book.

The murder takes place during a football match between Arsenal and an amateur team, the Trojans, watched by some 70,000 people. One-nil down at half time, the Trojans take the game to Arsenal in the second half and are awarded a penalty. John Doyce steps up and converts the kick but a few moments later he collapses and enters a coma from which he does not wake up. It turns out that he was poisoned but how was it administered during a soccer game being so watched so intently?

As the excellent introduction from Martin Edwards points out, this book is novel for several reasons but chief among them is the inclusion of real life footballers and Arsenal manager George Allison in the cast of characters. It is a neat touch that certainly helps to sell the story’s background though I am not sure that the Police would be quite so quick to dismiss the idea that any of the Arsenal players or staff could have been involved!

Inspector Slade’s focus instead falls squarely on the players and staff of the Trojans who, being amateurs, come from an interesting variety of backgrounds. Doyce was a newcomer to the team and does not seem to have been popular but he shared a business with a teammate and had played alongside several members of the squad on other amateur teams.

Slade is a relatively straightforward sleuth, lacking in any strong defining characteristics. Whether that reflects that the character had already been around for some time prior to this book’s publication or whether that was simply Gribble’s preferred writing style it is hard to say from this alone but I appreciated that he has a methodical, calm approach to solving this case which is entertaining and easy to follow.

There are several characters with strong motives to kill Doyce but one in particular stands out early in the proceedings. Everything seems to be pointing in that one suspect’s direction but rather than making Slade feel comfortable making an arrest, he feels it is almost too tidy to be natural, asking his superiors for permission to extend his inquiries for a few days before making his arrest.

Looking beyond the most obvious suspect, Gribble creates an interesting cast of characters for us to consider as killers. In an interesting twist on the whodunit formula, the means and a possible motive becomes clear relatively early in the case but we cannot tell which of the characters that motive would belong to. In addition, Gribble also allows us to listen in on a few conversations between those characters after Slade leaves the room so we are aware of ways in which they are attempting to manipulate the situation.

For the most part the mystery is fairly clued although there is an element of the solution that Slade reveals that helped him identify the killer that the reader has no real way of knowing. In other respects though I think it plays fair and while the solution is relatively simple, I do think that the explanation given is quite satisfying and I did enjoy the use of a trap element that is set near the end of the novel.

As much as I enjoyed the novel I cannot claim it is entirely successful. While the reveal of the killer’s identity may surprise some readers, the methodical analysis of the case means that there are few surprises for the alert reader in the second half of the novel. I would also add that the striking premise of a player being murdered in a stadium full of tens of thousands of witnesses is not entirely realized or referred to.

The positives however far outweigh those negatives and make this a novel that I think works whether you are a fan of the sport or not. I would certainly suggest that those who do not care for the beautiful game should not be put off by the subject matter – there is a strong and entertaining mystery novel to be found here and though not perfect, it is an entertaining and colorful read. It certainly makes me feel more excited about the prospect of reading other works by Leonard Gribble and if anyone has any experience with this author and can make any recommendations for other titles to try I would be grateful!

Review copy provided by the publisher. This book is already available in the UK but will be published in the United States on August 10.