Tag Archives: Kent Fiction

The Murder in Romney Marsh by Edgar Jepson

Edgar Jepson (1863-1938) was a popular detective novelist of the Golden Age. He translated Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin stories and also wrote supernatural tales. Jepson was the grandfather of novelist and scriptwriter, Fay Weldon. The Murder in Romney Marsh (Black Heath Classic Crime) by [Jepson, Edgar]

The Murder in Romney Marsh was first published in 1929. The chapters have cryptic titles, a popular device at the time. A businessman named Robert Garfield has been murdered in the village of St Joseph on Romney Marsh. Garfield lived in London and used his country home, Applecross Farm, as a shooting-box. James Carthew, a young inspector is sent from Scotland Yard to assist the local police, who are -in time-honoured fashion – baffled.

Inspector Carthew has a jaunty air about him. He’s been waiting for a chance to prove himself and feels this case may be it. At first, he passes himself off as a young gentleman who wished to amuse himself on a holiday. When he first examines the murder scene, he pretends he’s out rough shooting, looking for spent cartridges.

I stuck my eyeglass in my eye – nothing gives a man an air of greater simplicity than an eyeglass properly used. Has he been reading Dorothy L. Sayers?

Superintendent Goad, Carthew’s boss dislikes him because:

He preferred men of his own kind, men who had put in from seven to twelve years as ordinary police constables before they passed into C.I.D., whereas, after being demobilized and spending my gratuity, I had only spent two years as an ordinary constable before I passed into it. Also he did not like in me what I once heard a business man call ‘The Public School Taint’ in me.

Inspector Carthew has a conceited manner, full of confidence, though he is astute. He doesn’t want to share his findings with Collins, the local policeman. He’s a bit of a user and very keen to get full credit at the Yard for his work.

He narrates the story in first person, not the most common choice for detective novels. It gives an immediacy as the reader knows all his thoughts on deduction but we lose a more rounded view of what’s happening. The structure has to stay completely linear. I noticed how everything goes Carthew’s way. From the moment he arrives on the Marsh, he finds one clue leads to another. The jigsaw fits in place without setbacks.

Carthew is an interesting character. For a Scotland Yard inspector, he isn’t wholly moral. Once he falls for a suspect, he’s prepared to bend the rules, holding back facts from Collins and obliquely steering the lady out of trouble. We’re left to wonder whether Superintendent Goad dislikes Carthew for being ‘cocky’ and not one of the lads. He’d never stand for rule-bending so he can’t know about that.

Or is Goad prejudiced about a personable young chap with an old school tie and fast promotion? For there’s something likable about Carthew and he is on the side of justice – if not the letter of the law. Jepson’s characterisation makes Inspector Carthew very believable and way above a stock detective.

All the village characters are well-drawn, although a couple of foreign villains with exaggerated accents seemed strangely familiar. There are some interesting glimpses of class attitudes of the time. The local vicar is an old comrade of Carthew’s from the War. Here he discusses the vicar’s step-daughters who are hard up, have nothing useful to do and rarely meet anyone new:

Wouldn’t it be better for them to get a job – shorthand and typewriting or something of that kind?

No, such jobs lead to nothing. And then it would mean their living alone in a big town and long hours and poor pay and associating with people of a lower class.

The novel has a convincing atmosphere of Romney Marsh – in Kent, on the border with Sussex. There are some lovely descriptions of the haunting, flat landscape with its autumn mists seeping over the sea wall, plank-bridged dykes, warm-tiled cottages and fine, ancient churches. The Marsh is sheep country and its shepherds are known as lookers. A sinister name, harking back to the area’s smuggling history. This is a fascinating area, for ever associated with Russell Thorndike’s wonderful Doctor Syn stories.

There’s much to enjoy in The Murder in Romney Marsh, especially if you want to get a feel for what rural England was like between the wars. This is a good, escapist, detective yarn. A typical example of the kind so popular with readers trying to forget the horrors of the Great War and blot out the shadow of the war to come. It isn’t too hard to get the murderer though the conclusion is very well-reasoned and the outcome for Inspector Carthew is surprising. Well worth a read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Calamity In Kent by John Rowland

Another seaside read for late summer this week, Calamity in Kent, one of the British Library Crime Classics. This has the bonus of an interesting introduction by Martin Edwards and another breezy railway poster cover. The novel was published in 1950 and this is the first reprint. It is set in the fictional resort of Broadgate, a very lightly disguised Broadstairs. We can be sure of this as Rowland describes the topography in detail and mentions the real area of North Foreland, just beyond the town.

Broadstairs is a charming place, full of historic interest, with two claims to literary fame. Dickens loved the town, visiting many times and writing much of David Copperfield there. John Buchan and his family were staying at Broadstairs in the summer of 1914. His wife’s cousin was renting a cliff-top property which had a flight of steps leading to a private beach. They and the town are the inspiration for the end of The Thirty-nine Steps.

Calamity In Kent is narrated by Jimmy London, a journalist recuperating at Broadgate after an operation. His illness is unspecified but we know he’s been staying there in a boarding-house for some weeks. Taking a turn on the prom before breakfast, he sees a man who’s had a bad shock. He’s the operator of the cliff railway who has just discovered a body in the locked cliff railway carriage.

Jimmy’s newshound instincts make him excited to be first on the spot. There follows an amusing interlude where he views the body and manages to despatch the lift attendant to fetch the police. Left alone, he not only frisks the corpse, finding out his identity but finds a notebook – uncomfortably near splatters of blood – and cheerfully pockets it.

Jimmy immediately phones a Fleet Street editor and gets himself appointed special correspondent for the murder story. He can scent his way back to replenishing his funds and landing a staff job.

In my time I had been in on a few scoops. This, however, was the first time that I had ever had the inside story of a murder handed to me on a plate. And I knew that a recent increase in the newsprint ration meant that the papers would give a bit more space to the case, if it was truly sensational, than they had been able to do in years.

Then Jimmy meets up with an old friend, Inspector Shelley of Scotland Yard, who happens to be staying with the Chief Constable. Not having much faith in the unimaginative local man, Inspector Beech, Shelley suggests that he and Jimmy London pool their knowledge.

I think it would be as well if we agreed to share the work of investigation. You see, there are people who might talk to a journalist, who, on the other hand, would not so readily talk to a policeman. Queer, no accounting for personal taste.

I’ve noticed quite a lot of reviews with readers complaining about this unrealistic device but I’m happy to suspend belief if I’m enjoying myself. (We never miss Midsomer Murders or Father Brown.) It is rather convenient how Jimmy finds one lead after another and everyone readily tells him useful information – instead of where to get off. Even so, I did enjoy Calamity in Kent very much.

Jimmy London is an engaging protagonist. Optimistic, resourceful, unscrupulous, he’s very believable and you can’t help taking to him. Inspector Shelley is likable too and is John Rowland’s usual detective. The narrative gains added interest in being from Jimmy’s point of view. The plot is great fun and builds to an exciting denouement. This has a sense of real danger and comes close to the feel of a fifties thriller or black and white film.

Calamity in Kent has an interesting transitional feel in the world of 20th century crime fiction. The setting is familiar to that of a Golden Age detective novel but contains many post-war references. A character has a limp from a war wound. We hear about newsprint rationing, the difficulty of obtaining motor spares, identity cards, nationalisation of the coal mines and the black market. Britain’s seaside resorts have resumed their heyday – although they’ve only a decade or so before holiday-makers will fly away to the sun. But things aren’t quite the same. The barbed wire’s been taken off the beach, the Home Guard disbanded and the blown-up part of the pier repaired. There’s another list of names  on the war memorial. Even in a real life Walmington-on-sea, times are changing.

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The Detective Novels of Michael David Anthony

I’ve chatted to many devotees of crime fiction who haven’t come across Michael David Anthony (1942-2003), probably because he died far too young at sixty-one and published only three detective novels. Sadly, British bookshops and libraries mostly only stock newer titles these days which means readers have little chance of finding overlooked authors.

Anthony was an outstanding writer, superb on plot, character and background. His novels are in print, thanks to Felony & Mayhem Press, the wonderful American publishers, but it’s a shame he’s forgotten by the British publishing industry. The novels could be described as literary detective fiction, classic English and the setting for all three is one of my favourite sub-genres, clerical crime.

Anthony created an unusual amateur sleuth, Colonel Richard Harrison, secretary to the Diocesan Dilapidations Board at Canterbury Cathedral. This post gives Harrison an outsider’s view of the clergy who live in the Close. Through his eyes we see the Church of England struggling with the changing demands of modern life – the clergy’s schemes and antipathies being closer to Trollope than P.D. James’s Death in Holy Orders. Harrison’s work gives him lots of scope to tour around the diocese, visiting church properties in lovely East Kent villages while investigating.

Richard Harrison is a really interesting character, a tall figure, grey-haired and spare. A traditionalist who wants a quiet life, though he has his secrets. His army career was spent as a spy in military intelligence during the Cold War and in two of the novels The Becket Factor (1990) and Dark Provenance (1994), a connection from his past draws him into the present mystery. His wife Winnie is an art teacher, wheelchair-bound after contracting polio early in their marriage. Their relationship has in the past been strained by his work and guilt.

The clever, subtle plotting means that although the novels are about murder, the reader sees through Harrison’s eyes (in third person) and the police are minor characters. There’s no need for a friendly detective or any sidekick. Full of ambiguity and moral dilemma, they’re intelligent, thought-provoking and the unmasking of the murderer is always deeply satisfying. They’re the sort of novels where you’re avid to know whodunit but you don’t want them to end.

Michael David Anthony had an extremely good understanding of human nature. (Possibly because he grew up in a vicarage.) His characters are fully-drawn and motivations – murderous or otherwise – are completely believable. Like Agatha Christie, he knew how to write about evil. His murderers are chilling in their ordinariness.

His sense of place is wonderful, immersing the reader in Harrison’s world of the cathedral precincts, bustling city and surrounding countryside.

All day the fog had lain across Canterbury, obscuring the sun and giving a more than usually dank and melancholy feel to the autumn streets. Along the oozy, winding banks of the twin-channelled Stour, the mist had steadily wafted up and thickened as the short day waned, curling up under the overhanging gables and around the weed-draped and lichened piles of the medieval pilgrims’ hostel known as the Weavers (now an almshouse for the elderly) spanning the sluggish stream. Smothering in turn the venerable remnants of Greyfriars, Blackfriars and the ruined Dominican Priory, it had spread like some foul exhalation or conjured ectoplasm out from the river into the surrounding streets. Blending with the steaming exhausts of the city traffic, it proceeded to creep its way through a host of ancient backways and lanes, finally reaching out across the greasy, worn cobbles of the Buttermarket through the ancient Christ Church Gatehouse and on into the grounds of the cathedral itself.

These are very Kentish novels. As you can guess, The Becket Factor has a theme relating to Thomas A’ Becket’s murder at Canterbury. The final novel Midnight Come (1998) has parallels with the life of Christopher Marlowe. I’d recommend reading in order as for me,  each novel gets even better. They build a feeling of tension about Harrison which culminates in Midnight Come. This in particular is one of the most superb detective novels I’ve ever read.

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