The Dartmoor Enigma by Basil Thomson
Published in 1935, The Dartmoor Enigma is the fifth in Basil Thomson’s series of Inspector Richardson Mysteries. I picked this title to try as I’ve many happy memories of exploring ‘the moor’ as it’s known in South Devon.
A man living on Dartmoor dies in his bed, apparently from the after-effects of a motor accident. The inquest verdict is ‘death by misadventure.’ When the Chief Constable and Scotland Yard receive anonymous letters saying he was murdered, Chief Inspector Richardson and Sergeant Jago are sent to the West Country to investigate.
Richardson is what’s known as ‘the junior chief inspector’ at the Yard.
There were those who resented his quick promotion over the heads of officers senior to him, but it was impossible to feel malice towards a man who gave himself no airs, who appeared ever anxious to learn from those junior to himself in rank, and who gave the fullest credit to all who worked under him.’
Even after that build-up, Richardson does come across as likable and human. I think possibly he doesn’t have a regular side-kick as Sergeant Jago is placed with him on account of his being a native of Tavistock, near the edge of Dartmoor.
The names Thomson uses for moorland villages are made-up, though if you know the area you can work out the real places he had in mind. In the course of a distinguished and varied career, Basil Thomson was the Governor of Dartmoor Prison before the Great War. Much of the opening action is set around the village of Duketon with its Duchy Arms Hotel, a thinly-disguised Princetown where the prison is situated. One of my ancestors was the village bobby there in the 1860s. The descriptions tend to be slight – in the sparing writing style so often found in the Golden Age – yet Thomson catches the atmosphere he would have known so well. The novel starts in October,
One of those rarely warm and beautiful days that seem to be sent to leave dwellers on the moor with a memory of the dead summer when the pall of mist and rain is due to descend upon them.
The plot is a complex puzzle – not locked-room ingenious – but a well-written early police procedural with an interesting thread to unravel, believable characters and a plausible solution. I liked Richardson and Jago with their dogged determination. Among his many positions, Basil Thomson was Assistant Commissioner to the Metropolitan Police from 1913-19, thus the head of C.I.D. You couldn’t get more authentic inside knowledge than that!
It’s interesting to think how much styles in crime-writing have changed since the thirties. We learn almost nothing about Richardson apart from his rapid rise through the ranks. These days a strong background of the detective’s personal life and a certain amount of psychological insight is nearly compulsory – unless writing at the thriller end of the spectrum.
Like many readers I enjoy catching up with the protagonist’s home life and some Golden Age novelists did go in for a series arc in this way. Peter Wimsey’s relationship with Harriet Vane and Rory Alleyn and Troy spring to mind. But it’s a refreshing change now and again to read a crime novel written in this straightforward, no extras style. The detective concentrates on the puzzle without the usual tropes of the lone maverick, their love-life, quirks or conflict with authority. Perhaps the balance today has shifted a little too far in the other direction?
I also love reading about the social commentary in inter-war detective novels, the clothes, food, vocabulary, the nuances of the class system etc. are fascinating. I look forward to the other seven Inspector Richardson Mysteries and the detailed introductions by Martin Edwards are a lovely bonus.
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