THE GOLDEN AGE OF BRITISH MYSTERY FICTION - Reviews by Allen J. Hubin
When I still had my book collection (sold in 1982) I read and reviewed a number of Golden Age British mysteries, and stuck the reviews in a file. Some of the reviews were published somewhere, but here is a bunch that weren’t.
Elaine Hamilton’s Murder Before Tuesday (Ward Lock, 1937) is better than average Golden Age material, presenting a number of intriguing characters with mysterious and intertwined relationship and satisfying plotting. Inspector Reynolds of the Yard does the detecting, what little there is, and fair play is not emphasized. Vanda Quayne well qualifies as a murderee. She's a dancer who preys on people, sowing discord and hatred liberally in her path. She comes to London to perform despite threatening letters, hires a secretary, inflames passions, and, in due course, provides us with our corpse. The landscape is littered with suspects, a nosy reporter turns up who treads on all available toes, and Reynolds whisks a least likely suspect out of his hat at the end.
W. W. Masters and his only work Murder in the Mirror (Longmans, 1931) are about as obscure as they come. But the story is not without merit. The theme is psychic or supernatural menace, with which battle must be waged; I was reminded of the later books by Jack Mann. And quite a nice surprise climaxes the story. We begin with a man playing cricket – but playing while in mental turmoil for he can remember nothing of who he is or where he came from or how he happens to be in the game. We later meet his friends – pals from Oxford – and learn with whom, or with what, they are now locked in deadly, unavoidable combat. Babylon, magic, mind control and murder are all effectively worked into the story.
Nat Gould was, I gather, regarded as England’s (and maybe Australia’s, too) premier horse racing writer during his active years. At least some of his work was criminous, but of particularly thematic interest here is the rare volume of short stories, The Exploits of a Race-Course Detective (John Long, 1927). Those exploits comprise the first 6 (out of 15) tales in the collection. Crime stories they are (the other 9 are not), but of real detection they contain practically nothing. The sleuth is Valentine Martyn, the titular detective. He has a daughter, and we know that for her true love will out. The villain of the linked stories is a “sharper,” Luke Darton. Martyn foils his schemes each time, and we know that in the end Val will put him away. Each story has to do with racing; there is much of the jargon and milieu of the day, but no suspense and not much interest for present-day readers.
Of Lynton Blow I know absolutely nothing. The “Moth” Murder (Alexander-Ouseley, 1931; Holt, 1932) and The Bournewick Murders (Butterworth, 1935) appear to be the only traces he left in our criminous world, and they betray a fondness for plotting complexities and apparent impossibilities. Moth is perhaps the more interesting, and Bournewick the more baffling, though I found both quite pleasant British detection. In Bournewick Amelia Scott, an elderly though active woman living near the titular town, disappears; her strangled body turns up in due course. A suspect hoves into view, though the evidence is weakening; then he too is murdered. Another killing follows, and the Yard arrives in the person of Inspector Eldridge, who must tie together the multiple and seemingly unrelated murders and a mysterious mailbox fire, while the bodies continue to pile up: six die violently in this tale. Blow does break one of the cardinal rules of detective fiction here, but I found Bournewick sufficiently good that I can forgive him; the final resolution, though fanciful and not really of the fair-play variety, ties all together neatly.
In Moth a burning plane crashes to earth near a coastguard station on Bournemouth Bay; the pilot, sole occupant, is burned to a crisp. Inquiries and an autopsy reveal that the victim is the famous airman, Charles Stafford, who took off with a female passenger (now vanished), and that the corpse died not of incineration but of a bullet in the brain. Inspector Hunt of the Yard also has other puzzles: a second plane, piloted by the wife of Stafford’s passenger, took off at the same time and vanished without a trace – and a policeman was murdered on a rural road not far from the Stafford crash site on the same night. And more: Stafford’s heir turns up at the dead man’s home, stays a night, then disappears; there seems to be a curious link with a London drug gang; and then there’s that suitcase full of money... The U.S. dust jacket is criminally revealing, so avoid it, but not the book, which is fun 1930s reading.
Frass by John Chancellor (Hutchinson, 1929) was my first exposure to the work of this author, who produced a number of novels in our genre from 1923 to 1970. Frass is a thriller, not a detective story; I can’t speak for any other of Chancellor’s fictions.
Captain Frass left the sea, found a partner, and established a real estate business. But the captain was a bit naive: the residential plots his partner was peddling to earnest British burghers were just slightly offshore, and Frass spent a solo two years on the rockpile when the roof fell in.
Now released, he’s approached by Roscoe Lengarde and his Prisoner’s Benevolent Society with an offer of employment. Frass resists for a while, then joins in; Lengarde has a nice smuggling scheme going, using pleasure vessels.
Cracks rapidly develop in the operation, however: Frass discovers love, a conscience, a traitor in the ranks, and looming Excise men, in that sequence, and survival of the fittest becomes the order of the day. It will not surprise you to learn that the captain is quite fit (and survives for at least one sequel novel).
This is competent crime-adventure, enlivened more than anything else by its subsidiary characters: the sniveling and cowardly Ginger Hoyst, the reliable follower Taunton, and the mad historian Peterson.
My first sampling of British author John Laurence, The Fanshawe Court Mystery (Hodder & Stoughton, 1925), quite encourages me. This is a well-paced tale, nicely complex in plotting and properly mystifying. Sometime detective story writer John Martin is riding his motorcycle along a rural lane one rain-filled night, headed for home, when flagged down by the beautiful girl he’s worshiped from afar but not yet met. The girl has come through a forest path and urgently asks a ride to the station so she can catch the train to London. He helps her, and later learns that a reclusive local resident has been found murdered along that path. Why was he killed, and what roles do the girl and her dragon-aunt play? Supt. Barlow seems not to be making much headway, so Martin and a crime reporter do their own digging, as much to save the girl as anything else. Gradually threads of conspiracy, fraud, murder and revenge emerge.
Ripe for Development (Cassell, 1936) is one of several novels by John Gloag about Lionel Buckby, and it's a rather peculiar affair. Buckby has private money and only one passion: old furniture. He’s not very fond of the U.S...
“There was no sherry in America; nobody had a palate for wine; nobody really understood comfort – they gave you plumbing, central heating, air-conditioning, non-stop noise and high speed and called the whole thing luxury and progress. It was good to be back in real civilization.”
... and he’s one of the least perceptive protagonists in the genre. He gets mixed up with a crooked New York art importer and a pair of Chicago gangsters and never catches the drift. The results are nearly fatal – but New York's Insp. Slamble, allied with the Yard at the end, comes to the rescue. The scheme has something to do with furniture bearing Buckby's authentication being shipped across the Atlantic. Amusing in spots but not impressive.
Another British author of total obscurity is Josephine Plain, who perpetuated three mysteries featuring Colin Anstruther in the 1930s. One of these is The Secret of the Snows (Butterworth, 1935), set in a Swiss mountain village. Detestable chemist Alfred Gitterson married a young and beautiful and fearsomely superficial wife and in due course got himself strangled on a mountainside. Or so it appears at first glance. At second glance circumstances change drastically and it seems physically impossible for only one person to have done the deed. Anstruther is providentially vacationing on the spot. He wants no part of the matter, but his old friend, Swiss detective M. Maraud, draws him in – and in any case Colin had suspected one of the principals of murder in an earlier case. Various characters are slowly revealed for what they are as Colin and Maraud struggle against an impossibility which gets worse the more they dig. Pleasant and well- written as this is, it neither plays fair nor convinces nor satisfies in resolving the puzzle.
Hal Pink’s obscurity in this country is total. None of his thirteen books from 1932 to 1941 was published here, and I think Pink escapes notice in every commentary on the genre known to man or beast. So at least I wasn't over-expectant in approaching The Strelson Castle Mystery (Hutchinson, 1939), but it turned out to be a cheerful, fast and gratifying read. No detective story, this; it’s a thriller, with bad guys and good guys clearly identified at the outset. The good guys are a trio of bachelors, vacationing in Europe’s vest-pocket kingdom of Zovania. The bad guys are trying to grab control of a mysterious fortune, apparently hidden somewhere in Zovania’s titular castle, which has just been inherited by beautiful British opera star Coralie Mayne. The fun begins at the Zovanian border, and then it’s pell mell action all the way, in two batches – since the chief villain, vanquished once, brews another rotten scheme and surfaces again in his sewer.
Burford Delannoy wrote a number of volumes of crime fiction around the turn of the century, some of which are collections of detective short stories and vanishingly scarce. Denzil’s Device (Everett, 1904) is one of his novels and, for all its antiquity and stylistic peculiarity, it surprised me with its effectiveness, especially in the portrayal of odious villainy. The peculiarity lies in a pronounced tendency toward subjectless sentences (the subject of the previous sentence applies but is left unstated); this is compensated for by a wryly humorous turn of phrase. And while the basic outcome is fairly well assured from the outset, some uncertainty and suspense about details develops.
Denzil is wealthy and evil. He lusts after the daughter of a judge, but she rejects him for an actor. Denzil’s device is a scheme to acquire the girl (willingly or not) and revenge himself upon the actor. For his purposes he makes use of a murderous lowlife and an embittered mimic; for his downfall the careful attentions of Detective Doyle and colleagues must be praised.
My only reading of the works of Annie Haynes involves The Blue Diamond (Lane, 1925), which I found effective – surprisingly effective, even, in creating complexity and mystification and in arousing my interest. We meet the wealthy and titled Hargreaves, whose estate lies near Lockford in Devonshire, and who own the titular gem. A beautiful young woman, afraid and bereft of her memory, is found one night on the estate. The Hargreaves allow the woman to make the manor her home until her memory returns, or until her family can be traced. She soon wins the hearts of most of the household, especially that of Sir Arthur, the impressionable male head of the line who is just reaching his majority. No trace of the woman’s earlier existence can be found; her memory does not return. She stays on, and Sir Arthur's swoon deepens. Not everyone, however, finds her credible, and the disappearance without trace (apparently through locked doors) of a nurse brought in to aid her recovery casts a pall on the manor. And brings in the police...
Amusing and satirical and worth tracking down is Alan Melville’s Quick Curtain (Skeffington, 1934). Inspector Wilson of the Yard is in the audience when an actor plays dead with unseemly realism in the first act of the London premiere of “Blue Music,” a musical extravaganza staged by the redoubtable Douglas B. Douglas. The corpse is the star, the also redoubtable (if innocent of talent) Brandon Baker, whose fans number in the passionate hundreds of thousands. Wilson takes change in his own inimitable way, abetted and confounded by his journalist son, Derek. Wilson has an idea that the apparent killer (who committed suicide thereafter) is innocent, and accumulates evidence to prove his theory. Fortunately it all fits together SO neatly, even if rather messily for another member of the cast...
Inspector Geoffrey Boscobell features in thirteen of Cecil M. Wills’ detective stories, and Fatal Accident (Hodder & Stoughton,1936) is about midway through the series. Here wealthy Stephen Merrivale successfully casts himself for death: he discards a tempestuous mistress, stands exposed in perfidy to his wife, drives from his home the photographer who has befriended his wife, and regularly antagonizes his nephew, whom he keeps on a very short leash. So Merrivale's corpse comes as no surprise, except that he seems to have died in a car accident in which a random passing motorist may have been culpably negligent. These events in due course come to the attention of the Yard. Boscobell travels to the rural scene and finds a wealth of suspects, but the death stubbornly remains an accident, despite his instincts and efforts...
Another generally competent product of the Golden Age, though the means of death is rather pulled from a convenient hat.
The Griffith Case by John Bentley (Eldon, 1935) chronicles the second of nine investigations by Sir Richard Herriwell, noted antiquarian and amateur sleuth, whose “usual procedure is to accept a certain conclusion and then work back to prove it.” (The book is subtitled: “A Problem in Inductive Reasoning.”) He assists Scotland Yard's Chief Inspector Barton, a bluff policeman not given to subtleties. Here Marcus Griffith, a wealthy and odious moneylender, is stabbed to death in his country residence. As with most unloved murder victims, various suspects appear; indeed, a confession is forthcoming in due course. But Herriwell is not satisfied... Nor, hugely, was I; this seems but an unremarkable product of detection’s golden age.
British author John Arnold perpetrated five mystery novels during the golden age of the detective story, but The London Bridge Mystery (Jenkins, 1932) is not detection at all. It’s a thriller, almost from end to end a chase story – on foot, by car, by motorcycle, in the water, instalment after instalment. There’s very little credibility in any of it, but it is possible to get caught up in the continuous action. David Royle, an innocent accountant, is taking the underground home one evening when a girl, pursued by “toughs,” gives him a cloakroom ticket, whispers an assignation, and bolts. The toughs turn their malevolent attentions on our hero, who also takes to his heels. Various comic and perilous episodes ensue as several groups seek the booty (fabulously valuable Chinese statuettes stolen from the British Museum). At length Royle finds someone who believes his story (an attractive and unattached young woman, would you believe?), and together they scramble for a way out of the maze, with Scotland Yard also at their heels
Elliot Bailey, a 1930s British author never published here, wrote several novels featuring Detective Inspector Geoffrey Fraser of New Scotland Yard. The second of these, following Death in Quiet Places, is No Crime So Great (Eldon, 1936). Here we find him wedded to Mary, whom he rescued from a killer's clutches in the first book, and attending to a curious series of murders. Someone is taking deadly offense to England’s athletic heroes: one by one they are shot, just as the light of public acclamation shines most brightly. They all seem without personal enemies; what twisted motive could be at work? Fraser fastens his eye on a lame newsman who seems always nearby when bodies are produced, but there are other possibilities... No Crime is typical stuff of its day, satisfactorily readable but not outstanding in narrative style or plot or unexpectedness of denouement.
They don’t come much more obscure than The Glory Box Mystery (Angus & Robertson, 1937) by G. G. Wicking. Aside from the obscurity of the author (apparently an Australian, who did indeed write other books), what’s a glory box? It proves to be a dower chest. I gather a dower is a widow’s life portion of her husband’s lands and tenements. There's some irony in this, for when a clerk shows the box to a prospective purchaser in Melbourne’s Home Furnishers Emporium, it contains the corpse of one of the owners. Enter detective Dick Greenwood of the Criminal Investigation Branch. What follows is a fairly routine affair, with gradual revelation of the murderer and a final resolution that’s a bit surprising for the 1930s.
A Stranger Came to Dinner by Andrew Soutar (Hutchinson, 1939) is a fairly vigorous specimen of the 1930s British thriller, involving London inquiry agent Phineas Spinnet in an espionage affair. At first sight it seems to involve only a straightforward murder, as Sir Peter Greebe is battered to death in his mansion while a bizarre collection of international guests is enjoying his hospitality. The Yard is invited in and Spinnet is hired by a newspaper to poke about and report. At least he does the former, and the case quickly becomes murkier. A Japanese house guest is found hanged in a sealed room in which there is no place from which the rope could have been suspended – but little is made of this impossibility and the solution is casually revealed. Spinnet’s role becomes official and involves, among other perils, a fall from an airplane and torture in Portugal. There seems to be some sinister threat against Britain, and the name of the mysterious secret agent known as the Buzzard (friend or foe? live or dead?) circulates. Spinnet, playing both ferret and bait, catalyzes a surprising resolution.
Robert Machray’s Sentenced to Death (Chatto, 1910) dates from an age when men were strong and silent and women pure. Its subtitle is “A Story of Two Men and a Maid,” and so it is. The maid is Zilla Barradell, pure and wealthy, who while taking the cure in the brine baths at Wyche meets one of the men. This is Halliday Browne, strong and silent, silent especially on the subject of his secret service activities in India, the sentence of death by Indian extremists which hangs over his head, and his growing love for Zilla. The other man is Fernando Valdespino, a weak villain with a penchant for losing money at cards. Zilla does not see beyond his handsomeness and allows him to spike her relationship with Browne. Meanwhile a plot to bring terror and violence to England has been uncovered, and Browne, as chief investigator and principal target, is drawn into the fray. Who are the nasties in this scheme and who, besides Halliday, are their targets, and where are they hiding out? A diverting period piece, straightforward and predictable, is this – a romantic thriller, not a detective story.
I am well pleased with the first Paul McGuire tale I’ve read, Murder by the Law (Skeffington, 1932). McGuire seems to have a certain currency: Barzun & Taylor speak well of at least some of his works, and his books (especially those not published in the U.S., like this one) were (at least in my book-collecting years) both sought and scarce.
The plot and setting in Law are certainly acceptable but not exceptional. Rather more significant are the characters McGuire sketches for us, and his skillful and evocative use of language, particularly in dialogue.
One overly hot week of an English summer various people, including the curious folk of the New Health and Eugenist persuasion, gather at Bellchurch on the Sea. Also among the gatherers is Harold Ambrose, a poisonous novelist toward whom McGuire directs his most inspired venom. While someone else directs a blunt object...
Ambrose’s battered corpse is found on the beach, and Supt. Fillinger – trailed by narrator Richard Tibberts and painter-sleuth Jack Savage – thrusts his elongate form into a social realm containing at least one satisfied and accomplished killer.
Although Rogues in Clover by Percival Wilde (Appleton, 1929) is listed in “Queen’s Quorum,” is hideously scarce (only this first hardcover edition was ever published, to my knowledge), and has been sought after feverishly by collectors with deadly glints in their eyes and bankrolls in their fists (I came by my copy in an curious fashion in a one-time visit with dealer/ author Van Allen Bradley), as one American entry in this set of reviews, it barely qualifies as marginal mystery/detection.
We are introduced, in an opening chapter (“The Symbol”) to Bill Parmalee, son of a wealthy Connecticut farmer. Parmalee fled hearth and home to become a card sharper, pursuing a career of cheating which had its ups and downs, one of the latter finding him, unexpectedly, in his home town. He thought then to visit his widower father, who spurned him because of his life of crime. A duel over a deck of cards ensued, in which his father reawakened all those good instincts Bill had submerged, and Bill is then welcomed back into the paternal bosom. The remaining seven stories detail the cheating schemes Bill uncovers, usually in poker games and always at the behest of his woolly and wealthy friend Tony Claghorn. These are pleasant tales, nicely told with genteel humor and amusing insight into human nature, and they are better read as such than crime fiction.
Edward Candy (Barbara Alison Boodson Neville, 1925-1993) spaced her mysteries widely: two in the first part of the 1950s were followed by two more in the 1970s. Her Words for Murder, Perhaps (Gollancz, 1971) is subtitled “A Detective Story,” but as the most recently published book among those being now reviewed, it is not one in the Golden Age sense: it would appear not to be the author’s objective to fairly challenge the reader.
But the tale is quite a pleasant one, a neat puzzle in an academic setting. Gregory Roberts (misidentified on the dust jacket as Robert Gregory) lectures at Bantwich University, and teaches also in the “Extra-Mural” (adult education) department. He’s about 40, living with his mother after barely surviving a disastrous marriage and ensuing cuckolding, attempted suicide, psychiatric treatment, and divorce. Now his cuckolder and ex-wife’s present husband disappears, and the ex-wife receives a typewritten excerpt from an elegy in the mail. Signs seem to point to Roberts, who’s presenting Detective Fiction to a class of adults, including Nan Jones, a widow who seems to be reviving the youth of his soul. Then a fellow extramural lecturer dies of cyanide, amidst evidences of another elegy. Police continue to sniff about, Roberts fears his life is coming unglued, and death marches on...
Death on the Cliff (Benn, 1932) is my first exposure to Thomas Cobb, who produced a number of works in our field during the Golden Age. Cliff is not a brilliant representative of its hallowed era: the puzzle is neither baffling nor compelling, the detection is slight, the people are not fascinating, and the rural English setting is ordinary. Lady Roperson, whose 50ish husband is straying regularly from the connubial fold, is found dead on the rocks at the bottom of a cliff near their home. “Misadventure,” says the coroner’s jury – but Margaret Fairbrook, the dead woman’s daughter, immediately turns on her step-father, and Susannah Roperson (his daughter) develops an awful sense that murder has been done. Especially after a second death at almost the same spot as the first. A private detective (once of the Yard) comes into the picture but plays a minor role. The truth emerges as Susannah comes to ask the right questions of the right people.
It’s been established that Sefton Kyle was an alter ego for Roy Vickers, who achieved a certain currency in this country when discovered by Ellery Queen. So I was interested to try one of the Kyle novels (none of which was ever published in this country): Red Hair (Jenkins, 1933). Although from the publisher’s plot summary this appeared to be wholly non-criminous, a perusal proved this not to be the case. A murder occurs early and is pivotal to resulting events (though the reader knows at once who did it), and Kyle/Vickers/David Durham’s series Insp. Rason is our contact with Scotland Yard. (Rason’s adventures were chronicled under all three bylines, although the good inspector’s first initial seems to vary from book to book.)
The book is basically a gothic, and provides all the frustrations of the species. Secretary Patricia Ridge marries her politically rising boss, Sir Brennan Grantley, then discovers his first wife – long thought dead – has resurfaced. Instead of confiding in Grantley, she tries to save his career, embarking on a course dotted with deception, theft and murder – a quagmire in which her every effort at extrication results in increased danger. Of course, all ends well as expected. Not recommended.
Charles Ashton was another Golden Age practitioner not known in this country. My first sampling was Death Greets a Guest (Nicholson & Watson, 1936). Here a regular meeting of a rural archeological society at Squire Eastwood's Heatherling Hall is interrupted by a sudden downpour. And by murder: a guest, an artist who accompanied a regular member, is found shot in Eastwood’s summerhouse. It seems that no member can be guilty, that no motive exists, and that premeditation could not have been possible. Colonel Bretherton, Chief Constable, and Inspector Williams are baffled, but Major Jack Atherley, champion cricketeer and amateur sleuth, is on hand to sort matters out. Competent, readable, pleasant, and quite forgettable.
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