Tag Archives: Golden Age Detectives

The Toff at Butlin’s by John Creasey

John Creasey was a writing phenomenon, one of the most prolific authors of all time, with at least 700 titles published. Creasey was not only prolific, he was fast. He could write two or three full-length novels in a week. To read them, you would never know that they were written at speed. They are quality examples of crime fiction.

Although, Creasey is best known as a crime writer, he also wrote romances, westerns, thrillers – the cross-genre list goes on. As a crime writer, Creasey is up there with the best. Think of his creations; The Baron, The Toff, Gideon of the Yard, Inspector West, the Department Z novels – the list goes on and on.

When I was younger I used to see dozens of Creasey titles on the racks everywhere; in bookshops, railway stalls, newsagents – all with their distinctive covers. He was well regarded in his profession. The Crime Writers’ Association give awards in his honour.

I’ve been meaning to write about Creasey’s books for some time, for he is one of the masters of the craft.

His character the Hon. Richard Rollison, better known as The Toff, made his first appearance in Thriller magazine in 1933, his first book outing Introducing the Toff appearing five years later. There were about 60 Toff books published, Creasey would often write several in a year – four of the titles appeared after the author’s death.

The premise of the Toff is that well-brought up gentleman Rollison goes into the East End of London to fight crime, acquiring a reputation and the nickname. He has a calling card showing a gent complete with top hat and monocle, wearing a bow-tie and sporting a cigarette holder. He has an eye for the ladies and a rather nice flat in Gresham Street in Mayfair.

But really Rollison belongs to what the thriller writer Geoffrey Household called “Class X” – he fits in as well with the slum-dwellers of the East End as he does with posh society.

The trappings of the upper-class are present in these stories, but there is none of the dreadful snobbery you get with writers like Sapper and Wheatley. Rollison is a righter of wrongs, with friends he values right across Britain’s ridiculous class divide.

Like all good crime-fighters, the Toff has a winning supporting cast; there is his “man” Jolly, who puts on a pretence of being thoroughly miserable; Superintendent Bill Brice of Scotland Yard, who doesn’t really approve of Rollison, but welcomes his help; Bill Ebbut, who trains fighters in the East End and provides muscle to the Toff when needed. All of them delightfully drawn by the author.

Now, although I’ve been re-reading the Baron stories by Creasey, I hadn’t read the Toff for many years. Then, browsing in an antiques shop in York, while researching backgrounds for my next William Quest novel, I came across a battered copy of The Toff at Butlin’s. My copy had clearly originated at the Butlin’s Camp at Filey, for it is autographed by many of the redcoats working there during the 1954 season – including at least two who went on to become famous in the UK – the comedian Charlie Drake and the entertainer Eddie Keene, although the story is actually set at a Welsh holiday camp.

Now, for readers outside the UK, Butlin’s was and is a very famous holiday camp enterprise, set up by Billy Butlin in the late 1920s. Holidaymakers, usually on limited incomes, could come to Butlin’s for a fixed fee holiday, which included lots of entertainment provided by the famous redcoats (many British variety stars began their careers as redcoats). It was cheap, but it was very cheerful, for Billy Butlin was the complete showman in every sense of the word.

At some point, and I don’t know quite when it started, Billy Butlin approached several writers asking them to set books in one of his holiday camps. Dennis Wheatley, an arch-snob, famously turned him down. But several rather forgotten writers accepted, and two writers at least who are still highly regarded – John Creasey and Frank Richards, creator of Billy Bunter.

Now, the thought of the Hon. Richard Rollison staying at Butlin’s to investigate the disappearance of a trio of redcoats might seem strange, but it works wonderfully. Mostly, because Rollison is never portrayed as a snob and can mix with anyone.

And, by the 1950s, the Toff is rather hard up, putting out his sleuthing skills for money. He has to pay the bills so, when Billy Butlin (who makes a cameo appearance in the novel) invites him to his holiday camp at Pwllheli to investigate why redcoats keep vanishing, Rollison is quite eager to go – spurred on, it has to be said, by the photograph of a pretty girl on the cover of the Butlin’s brochure. His man, Jolly, thinks it all rather undignified and is outraged at the suggestion, but then, well, they do need the money. Some of the most amusing scenes in the novel explain Jolly’s conversion to the Butlin cause.

But what is the mystery which brings the Toff to Butlin’s? Well, I’m not going into any detail, for this is a wonderfully entertaining novel that you really should read for yourself. Sufficient to say that, along the way, there are robberies, the disposal of stolen goods, murders, and the Toff himself under threat from deadly opponents. And just who can the Toff trust? Not everyone can be trusted.

Never has a holiday camp been so menacing in a work of fiction – or so much fun. And the reaction of the campers when they discover that a celebrity like the Toff is in their midst is wittily drawn.

I would think that Sir Billy Butlin must have thought the book a hoot. It’s certainly as readable and fresh as the day it was written.

I shall certainly re-read the Toff novels as I find them. I know his agent is working very hard to make these titles more widely available. But how lovely it would be to see the paperbacks, with the original cover art, back in the bookshops.

And, I must say, I rather like this idea of setting a crime novel at Butlin’s. Sir Billy Butlin is long gone, but if anyone from Butlin’s would like to offer me a chalet for a week or two, I’ll see what I can do…

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‘The White Cottage Mystery’ by Margery Allingham

The White Cottage Mystery was Margery Allingham’s first detective fiction and her second novel. She began her writing career with Blackerchief Dick, an historical adventure, published in 1923, when she was only nineteen. The White Cottage Mystery was serialised in the Daily Express in 1927 and published as a novel a year later. After Allingham’s death in 1966, her sister Joyce revised the work to remove recaps etc. necessary in a serial.

Margery Allingham’s work is very individual among Golden Age fiction. Unquestionably a great detective novelist when she played it straight, she sometimes blurred the boundaries between detective fiction and rollicking adventure yarns, full of high jinks and eccentric enemies. You see this now and again in Agatha Christie’s earlier novels, such as The Secret Adversary and The Big Four, which also started life as a serial. Great fun, though I prefer Allingham’s more serious cases.

Although I’ve a great affection for Allingham’s work and Mr Campion, she’s my least favourite of the GA ‘big four.’ Someone has to be and that’s only because I love Christie, Sayers and Marsh even more. Margery Allingham was a wonderful writer and in The Tiger in the Smoke, (published in 1952), gave us one of the great London novels.

The White Cottage Mystery begins in Kent before moving to Paris and the South of France. A man described as a ‘mental torturer’ is shot dead in his neighbours’ house. Naturally enough, everyone in both households turns out to have a motive for his murder. As Mr Campion didn’t make his first appearance until the next novel, the detective is Chief Inspector Challoner of the Yard, assisted by his engaging son Jerry.

In a way, both are stock characters but none the worse for that. All humans really fall into one of a few types, however little we like to think so. And pre-war detective characters had to be products of their class and upbringing. So we have the Chief Inspector, keenly observant, wise and avuncular and Jerry, a typically young, enthusiastic, would-be detective, thoroughly decent and in love with one of the suspects. His father says of him:

‘Jerry,’ he said, ‘you have a quick eye, a fertile imagination, and the gift of application, but you’ll never make a detective – you’ve no ground work.’

Although Margery Allingham’s writing invariably had a freshness and vivacity, The White Cottage Mystery feels very much like the work of a young writer. The character of the murder victim is unremittingly black, other characters and plot lack the subtlety of her later work. Even the greats had to learn their craft and there’s an enjoyable liveliness about the narrative, with red herrings galore.

It’s fascinating to read the early work of a much-loved crime writer and see the origin of later ideas. Here we have the idea of a nefarious society – no more details as I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading – but it’s the idea expanded upon in Look To The Lady, published in 1931. We also get the first appearance of Allingham’s cheery old lags, always so vividly written and culminating in Mr. Campion’s lovable side-kick, Magersfontein Lugg. Chief Inspector Challoner too, is not unlike Inspector Stanislaus Oates of later novels.

The revised novel retains the feeling of a serial. The opening plunges into action, quickly introducing the hero and the murder. There are short, titled chapters, each giving a concise piece of the jigsaw and ending on a cliff-hanger or hook. There’s no room for musing or build-up with the finished work 157 pages. Even so, Margery Allingham inserted some lovely sentences that set the atmosphere in a line or two. This is when the action shifts to Paris:

The car turned suddenly out of a noisy thoroughfare into a quiet old-fashioned avenue where the trees, green and dusty in the heat, nodded together before tall brown houses. They came to a standstill before a house whose windows were hung with old-fashioned looped plush curtains and showed the gleam of polished mahogany in their shadowed depths.

I enjoyed re-reading The White Cottage Mystery. It’s as good as many ‘standard’ inter-war mysteries with a well-reasoned plot and inventive solution. Most impressive for a twenty-three year old author. The foundations are there though a contemporary reader probably wouldn’t have sensed that the author was going to become one of the pre-eminent crime writers of the Golden Age and beyond.

 

 

 

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‘Holy Disorders’ by Edmund Crispin

Holy Disorders, published in 1946, is the second Gervase Fen mystery by Bruce Montgomery (1921-78), writing under the pseudonym Edmund Crispin. Montgomery is considered to be one of the last of the great Golden Age novelists. He was much admired by his friend Agatha Christie.Holy Disorders (A Gervase Fen Mystery) by [Crispin, Edmund]

Edmund Crispin stands out among his peers for the sparkling humour he brought to his work. His amateur sleuth Gervase Fen – a Professor of English at Oxford – was partly based on Montgomery’s Oxford tutor, W.G. Moore. Fen is eccentric, mercurial, by turns charming or pithy. At one point, Fen spends some time running through suspects’ alibis with his friend, Geoffrey Vintner.

‘Do you get it?’ He asked.
‘No’, said Geoffrey.
‘Nincompoop,’ said Fen.

Fen has the wit of Peter Wimsey, the facetiousness of Rory Alleyn and the capacity for getting in a mess of Bertie Wooster. He takes up enthusiasms rather like Toad from The Wind in the Willows and he frequently quotes the white rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. Gervase Fen is as idiosyncratic as Sherlock Holmes, as brilliant a detective and just as lovable to the reader.

Holy Disorders is set in the hot summer of 1940 with the Battle of Britain dominating the headlines. Beginning in London, we follow Geoffrey Vintner, a confirmed bachelor, organist and composer, on an eventful journey down to the Devon cathedral town of Tolnbridge. He’s perhaps something of a self-portrait as Bruce Montgomery was a bachelor for most of his life and a composer of church music. (He was also well-known for his film scores, composing the music for several Carry On comedies).

Vintner is summoned by Fen to be a temporary replacement for the cathedral organist, who’s been attacked and put out of action. Along with this breakfast telegram, Vintner receives an anonymous letter, warning him not to go to Tolnbridge.

He felt as unhappy as any man without pretension to the spirit of adventure might feel who has received a threatening letter, accompanied by sufficient evidence to suggest that the threats contained in it will probably be carried out.

Before leaving London, Vintner is waylaid while purchasing a butterfly net for Fen – insects of several kinds play a significant part in the novel. His journey manages to be both farcical and menacing. He’s saved from attack by Henry Fielding, a young man who is heir to an earldom and straight out of Wodehouse. He’s looking for adventure and inveigles himself into this one, accompanying Vintner to Tolnbridge. Fielding explains why he hasn’t joined up:

They won’t have me. I volunteered last November but they graded me four, I joined the ARP, of course and I’m thinking of going in for this new LDV racket.
Nothing wrong with me except shaky eyesight…I want to do something active about this war – something romantic. I tried to join the Secret Service but it was no good.

Crispin was an extremely accomplished writer, a real all-rounder. His sense of atmosphere is beautifully written. Settings such as Paddington Station and the journey by steam train, summer evenings in the gardens of Tolnbridge and its surrounding countryside are lyrically described. The author settled in South Devon and was obviously thinking of that coast’s estuaries when he described Tolnbridge. Its topography bears some resemblance to Exeter at the head of the Exe estuary, though only partial. Too much is imagined to be a thinly-disguised version.

When Vintner arrives in Tolnbridge, there’s an M.R. Jamesian feel to the narrative. His hostess at the clergy-house explains that the organist has been rendered insane:

An empty cathedral isn’t a good place to be in all night– even for the unimaginative.

Athough Holy Disorders has a lively, humorous tone, there’s constantly a much darker atmosphere lurking beneath. It reminds me of the way Agatha Christie creates a sense of evil in many of her plots. I wonder if this is a trick they ever discussed? Beneath the larky fun – the feeling that P.G Wodehouse has tried his hand at a murder mystery set in a Trollopian Cathedral Close – there’s an undercurrent of cruelty and malice.

Along the way the narrative is a delight, in places laugh-out-loud funny. Gervase Fen doesn’t appear for seventy-odd pages. His entrance is built up, pantomine fashion, the reader constantly hearing about his latest exploits and reading his messages. When he does burst in, he soon breaks the famous fourth wall, stepping out of the action a moment to address the readers, as though we’re in on the joke. Rarely seen at the time, though Leslie Charteris does this engagingly in his Simon Templar stories.

The novel is full of word-play and literary allusions in a way that reminds me of the much-missed Reginald Hill’s work. You feel that Edmund Crispin was having fun as he wrote, treating his readers as intellectual equals and thoroughly enjoying himself.

Another instance of Crispin having fun and breaking the rules is when he describes the reading matter lying about the clergy-house – John Dickson Carr (whom he admired), Nicholas Blake, Margery Allingham and Gladys Mitchell.

He also has the local inspector say:

The Chief Constable got on to the Yard. I believe they were going to send down one of their best men – fellow called Appleby.

Much to Fen’s indignation. (Sir John Appleby, Michael Innes’s famous detective). Fen, being competitive, determines to solve the case before the Yard – that well-known trope – with all the enthusiasm Morse might show for a free pint of real ale and a fiendish cryptic crossword.

Holy Disorders is hard to describe or categorise. A glorious romp, an adventure yarn, a Golden Age thriller, it’s also an intriguing whodunit with a final gathering and a chilling ‘reveal’ worthy of Poirot.

That probably sounds like too much in the pot but trust me, you’re in the hands of a master. Edmund Crispin’s mysteries are a dazzling treat, as fresh and enjoyable now as the day they were first published.

  

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Agatha Christie’s Halloween Party

Published in 1969 this seasonal novel features Hercule Poirot and his friend Mrs Ariadne Oliver. It was dedicated to P.G Wodehouse.Hallowe'en Party (Poirot) (Hercule Poirot Series Book 36) by [Christie, Agatha]

While staying with a new friend, Mrs Oliver is taken to a house called ‘Apple Trees’ where preparations for a Hallowe’en party are taking place. The house is full of assorted helpers, mostly mothers, spinsters, teenagers and children.
These were the days when Hallowe’en was still celebrated in the old way in Britain. A night of apple bobbing, folklore and ghost stories; much more atmospheric than today’s supermarket aisle of tacky costumes and plastic pumpkins. By tradition it was the night when girls might catch a fleeting glimpse of their future husband. No one toured the neighbours demanding treats. The party is a great success until at the end of the evening, the body of a thirteen year old girl is found murdered in the library.

Mrs Oliver asks Poirot to investigate. He enlists the help of ex- Superintendent Spence who appeared in Mrs McGinty’s Dead and has retired to the village to live with his sister. Poirot insists on staying at a ‘fifth class guest house’ and wincing round the village in his too-tight patent leather shoes as he talks to a variety of well-drawn characters. Agatha Christie skilfully conjures a sly, sinister atmosphere in the village of Woodleigh Common. A feeling that some know more than they’re prepared to tell Poirot. A sense that someone mad is hiding behind an ordinary face and further danger is impending.

Hallowe’en Party is one of the last novels, written when the author was in her late seventies. The thing that strikes me most on rereading is how frequently characters comment on the times, voicing what were surely her own thoughts. Although the village setting is vintage Christie, the novel reads as strangely modern compared to earlier works.

Characters discuss the changing nature of crime, its causes and solutions now capital punishment has been abolished. Poirot’s view puts justice before compassion because that would save the lives of future victims. Other characters argue that the ‘mentally disturbed’ are being sent home because ‘mental homes’ are too full. Are murderers ‘mentally defective’ or just ‘nasty bits of goods’?

One character remarks ‘there have been very many sad fatalities with children all over the countryside. They seem to be getting more and more frequent.’ The village doctor says ‘mind you, doing in a child isn’t anything to be startled about nowadays.’

Another comments: ‘It seems to me that crimes are so often associated nowadays with the young. People who don’t really know quite what they are doing, who want silly revenges, who have an instinct for destruction. Even the people who wreck telephone boxes, or who slash the tyres of cars, do all sorts of things just to hurt people, just because they hate – not anyone in particular, but the whole world. It’s a sort of symptom of this age.’

You can’t imagine those lines in a pre-war or fifties Christie novel and you can hear the author saddened by changing society.

For that reason Hallowe’en Party has a sad, elegiac air. Poirot seems old and tired. We first see him in his flat, disappointed when an old friend rings to cancel his visit. ‘Many of the evenings were dull now.’ He thinks back over the previous cases where Mrs Oliver involved him. It’s all a long time after the camaraderie of detecting with Hastings and Miss Lemon.

There are other modern touches which seem jarring in a Christie novel. Teenagers ‘necking’, youths with long hair and side-burns, mauve trousers, rose velvet coat and ‘a kind of frilled shirting.’ (Takes me back to my brother when he used to blow his wages in Carnaby Street). There’s mention of purple hemp and L.S.D. ‘which sounds like money but isn’t.’ Mrs Oliver accuses Poirot of sounding like a computer programming himself. And of course the murder of a child is a departure from her usual victims – though not her only instance.

This was still an extremely enjoyable read, character-driven with a real sense of creeping evil. Though I prefer her work up to about the fifties, late Agatha Christie is still better than umpteen others.

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Hide In The Dark by Frances Noyes Hart

An American seasonal mystery this week, published in 1929 and set a year earlier on Hallowe’en. Hide In The Dark is the first novel I’ve read by Frances Noyes Hart (1890-1943) and I enjoyed it enormously.Hide in the Dark: An All Hallow's Eve Mystery (Black Heath Classic Crime) by [Hart ,Frances Noyes]

Thirteen people are gathered at Lady Court, an old house, some forty miles south of Washington. The house has been owned by the family of their hostess, Lindy, for over two hundred years, though not lived in – except by a servant – for the last fifty. Lady Court is supposedly haunted by an ancestor who committed murder.

Eleven of the characters are old college friends, a group who called themselves ‘The Mad March Hares,’ the remaining two are spouses. The group haven’t been all together for nearly a decade. They’re still haunted by the suicide of their twelfth friend, Sunny, who drowned herself when she was nineteen.

The novel begins as they arrive for a Hallowe’en house-party. The idea is to recall happy occasions spent there many years ago. They bring hampers of food for three days and the caretaker servant has been sent away. As night falls, Lindy recounts the story of the murder for the benefit of their new guests. In the best tradition of Hallowe’en tales, the weather worsens with lashing rain and a great storm. A river floods, sweeping away a bridge and cutting off the house. They find the telephone is no longer working.

The group play traditional games such as ‘apple-bobbing’ and ‘flour and ring’. Over the course of the evening, old friends catch up, secrets are disclosed, hidden enmities surface. The author does a wonderful job of building a darkening atmosphere beneath the high jinks and a sense of growing danger. This culminates at midnight when they play ‘hide in the dark,’ – more often known as ‘sardines’ in the U.K – and one of them is murdered.

Unable to get help, the friends question one another and try to work out whodunit. It turns out that several had a motive to kill the victim.

Hide In The Dark is beautifully written. Initially, I wondered if thirteen suspects might be a lot to get straight but soon found the author created clearly delineated characters. They are very believable of their period, it was easy to get to know them and care what happens. Frances Noyes Hart also included a cast list, a popular device in Golden Age fiction.

The novel has a lot of quick-fire dialogue and I kept ‘seeing’ the scenes as a black and white film, the sort that would star Bette Davis and George Brent, say. I think Hitchcock might have enjoyed directing this. It has a well-crafted blend of fun and malice.

Hide In The Dark builds to an abrupt, though very satisfying conclusion. It’s been an interesting change to read an American take on a classic mystery plot and I look forward to trying more from Frances Noyes Hart.

 

 

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The Man Who Killed Himself by Julian Symons

First published by Collins in 1967, I have the vaguest memory of reading The Man Who Killed Himself in the seventies. I’m so glad to have rediscovered it recently in a second-hand bookshop in Scotland. The plot is as intriguing as the title and I was hooked from the first paragraph.The Man Who Killed Himself by [Symons, Julian]

This is the story of Arthur Brownjohn, a meek, hen-pecked husband who decides to murder his wife. (We never reveal spoilers. This is given away on the jacket copy and in the first line.) Despite contemporary references, the novel has a similar ‘feel’ to that of Golden Age mysteries and immediately brings Malice Aforethought to mind. Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox)’s legendary classic is one of my all-time favourites. However, Julian Symons puts a most original spin on the popular trope of a mild-mannered husband with murder in mind. The Man Who Killed Himself soon goes in a very different direction as Brownjohn’s troubles get increasingly complicated.

It’s impossible to say more without giving away too much. Let’s just say that the novel is brilliantly plotted, tight, intricate, has a succession of first-class twists and a clever denouement. Julian Symons’ prose is wonderful with vividly believable characters and a shrewd sense of psychology. This is a superb black comedy, gripping, very funny, sad and thought-provoking too.

The novel also has a very well-observed sense of place and time, from descriptions of the sixties in suburban Surrey and London, to Brighton and the Sussex Downs. As a child, I knew Brighton at that time and the depiction of the Lanes stuffed with antique shops, the seedy back-streets of Kemptown and the lovely old West Pier still intact, are just as it was.

Suburban life behind the privet is depicted in some lovely wry observation. The Brownjohns inhabit a world where couples visit for rubbers of bridge – and oneupmanship – serving sandwiches and coffee from a hostess trolley and a good-night whisky between eleven and twelve.

The house was called The Laurels, although there was no remaining trace of a laurel tree. …There are hundreds of such houses in Fraycut, and they are loved by those who live in them because they establish so satisfactorily their owners’ position in society.

Over the years I’d more or less forgotten how much I’d enjoyed Julian Symons’s books, recalling only his Victorian-set detective novel, The Blackheath Poisonings, which I like a lot. Now I’m keen to re-read more.

The Man Who Killed Himself is a sparkling read and should appeal to fans of Francis Iles, Hitchcock and Peter Lovesey.

 

 

 

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The Dartmoor Enigma by Basil Thomson

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.

To order a copy please click on the link below:

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Death Walks In Eastrepps

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.

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