Death Walks In Eastrepps by Francis Beeding is one of the most famous detective novels from the Golden Age and deservedly so. Published in 1931 it is an early example of what we would now call a serial killer plot. Don’t let this put anyone off. It is no more gory than Agatha Christie’s The ABC Murders which came out a year earlier.
Francis Beeding was the pseudonym of two interesting writers John Palmer (1885-1944) and Hilary St George Saunders (1898-1951). They wrote over 30 detective novels and thrillers together as well as individual works and other collaborations.
The setting is based on a thinly-disguised Cromer in Norfolk, which is still a small seaside town of great charm. Eastrepps in the novel is a select resort, home of genteel spinsters and retired Colonels. A pretty town of fishermen and cliff-top villas, tennis courts, tea-rooms and tamarisk hedges. The story begins in July with the summer season at its height.
The novel is filled with fascinating detail of summer at the seaside in the early thirties. The East Coast Revellers are appearing at the theatre, featuring minstrels, “men with blackened faces carrying banjoes and girls in white pierrot dresses.” Eastrepps is gay with playbills, sunlit and safe. “Young men in blazers and grey flannels, accompanied by young women in white pleated skirts and brilliant jumpers, swarmed in the streets and on the sands.”
As the murders pile up, the atmosphere changes to one of fear and suspicion, the streets empty by dusk and the theatre dark. The white-haired gentlemen of the hastily formed Vigilance Association patrol their beats, armed with mashie niblicks. Holiday-makers flee, boarding-house bookings are cancelled and their owners fear ruin. The press descend on the town and questions are even asked in the House. Chief Inspector Wilkins of the Yard is sent to take over the case.
The sense of terror permeating the resort is extremely well realised. In a particularly effective passage we share the final moments of the sixth victim, from the creeping sense of menace in the warm night streets to the terrible realisation that he is face to face with the Eastrepps Evil.
If Death Walks In Eastrepps has a flaw, it is that eventually it is fairly easy to work out the identity of the murderer. In a sense this is partly because the novel was written eighty-odd years ago. We crime fiction fans have read so many cunning plot permutations that we’re a highly suspicious bunch. The authors here use a device that we’re more likely to consider these days.
At the time of writing, plot twists we now take for granted were being newly thought up to surprise the readership. When The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd was published in 1926, its astounding conclusion caused a literary sensation. Sadly there’s not much new under the sun for us now – which is why we value so highly, a crime novelist who can pull the wool over our eyes.
And even if the canny reader guesses whodunit, there is much more to come. A gripping court scene is followed by an exciting denouement with further revelations. The motive of the murderer is interesting and unusual. The novel delivers a really satisfying and thought-provoking finish.
Death Walks In Eastrepps is a wonderful classic, not to be missed.
Every summer Cromer stages the last end of the pier show surviving in the U.K. These variety performances were to be found throughout the summer season on every pier in Britain. They’re part of our seaside history and great fun. It’s good that the tradition is kept going and in such an attractive setting.
By the way we’re currently writing the final chapters of a detective yarn set in a seaside resort in 1930s Sussex.