E. C. Bentley | Trent's Last Case | Trent's Own Case | Trent Intervenes
H. Warner Allen | Anthony Berkeley
Alan Melville | Quick Curtain
R.A.J. Walling | That Dinner at Bardolph's / The Dinner-Party at Bardolph's | The Fatal Five Minutes | Prove It, Mr. Tolefree / The Tolliver Case | The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas / The Cat and the Corpse | The Corpse in the Coppice / Mr. Tolefree's Reluctant Witness | The Corpse With the Floating Foot / The Mystery of Mr. Mock | Marooned with Murder / Bury Him Deeper | The Corpse With the Blue Cravat / The Coroner Doubts | The Corpse With the Grimy Glove / More Than One Serpent | The Corpse With the Red-Headed Friend / They Liked Entwhistle | The Corpse With the Eerie Eye / Castle-Dinas | A Corpse By Any Other Name / The Doodled Asterisk | The Corpse Without A Clue
A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection Home Page
Trent Intervenes (collected 1938)
The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas / The Cat and the Corpse (1935) (Chapters 1-5, 12)
The Corpse With the Blue Cravat / The Coroner Doubts (1938)
A Corpse By Any Other Name / The Doodled Asterisk (1943) (Chapter 1)
The above is not a complete list of the authors' novels and short stories. Instead it contains my favorite works, those I enjoyed reading, and recommend to others. The lists under the collections do not include all the short stories in the book, just the ones I recommend.
Haycraft was particularly impressed with Bentley's naturalism, a low key approach that excluded melodrama. Sayers admired the many cultural references in Bentley, and what she regarded as his fine writing. Both critics were also impressed with Bentley's characterization. They felt Bentley brought new realism, craftsmanship and believability to the detective novel, which they asserted had been largely dominated by melodrama and purple prose before Bentley's time.
Evaluating Bentley's claim to be the Father of the Golden Age Mystery Novel is difficult today. Bentley's contemporary, R. Austin Freeman, was also writing Golden Age style novels in this period, such as the classic The Eye of Osiris (1911). Other novels also anticipate the Golden Age in interesting ways:
Dozens of mystery novels were published in the 1910's; I have read only a few, and do not yet have a clear understanding of all the trends in this era. Please see an index to articles on the 1910's on this site.
By contrast, there are differences in content between Bentley and most Realists. His stories do not tend to have a "background", an inside look at some business or institution. His hero is a reporter, not a policeman. Only occasionally does science play a role in the tales. In short, while his tales anticipate the plot form of the Realists, he differs from them in content. Bentley's content, and his naturalistic style, seem closer to Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and other Golden Age authors of British country house mysteries, and he was probably a direct influence on these writers.
The specific plot developments in Trent's Last Case seem to be the model for the plot of Dorothy L. Sayers' first novel, Whose Body? (1923): her book is full of creative variations on Bentley's ideas. This is discussed in detail in the article on Sayers.
Trent's Own Case is full of many little subsidiary mysteries, each lasting a chapter or two, and each focusing on a new cast of characters. It gives the work as a whole the feel of a short story collection, or a loosely linked short story sequence à la The Arabian Nights. Many of the sections of the novel deal with ingenious criminal or quasi-criminal schemes. Like many of the short stories in Trent Intervenes, these sections seem inspired by the Rogue tradition. The vanishing son here (Chapter 10) seems allied with "The Vanishing Lawyer" (1937) of the collection. While some of these individual sections are well done, the book as a whole is a disappointment.
There are also many signs of similarity with Dorothy L. Sayers in the book. The story is crammed with cultural allusions and quotes from poetry. Trent's Last Case (1913) is packed with similar poetic quotes. There is also a wallowing in snobbish high life. Intermixed with all this high toned or at least upper crust material is a look at decadent personal and sexual relationships. While all of this material is very low key compared to the raciness of contemporary mysteries, it recalls Sayers' similar interest in the decadent. I can't say that I really like or enjoy any of this decadence; this sort of stuff just seems mildly repellent to me in both Sayers and Bentley.
There are also many scenes set in France in this novel, a location that recalls Freeman Wills Crofts. Sure enough, the novel drew euconiums from both Sayers and Crofts. There is also a fairly ingenious alibi.
Although Bentley's novel is a precursor of the Golden Age, only some of these tales fit Golden Age murder mystery paradigms. Instead, many (8 of the 12 stories) are tales of clever rogues and their crooked schemes. These tales do not entirely fit the paradigms of Rogue Literature either: they are told from the detective's point of view, not that of the rogue's, and are genuine mysteries, with the rogue's behavior explained only at the end of the tale. Still, most of these stories center around clever criminal schemes, and do not involve murder. Among the better such works are "The Vanishing Lawyer" (1937), "The Public Benefactor", and "The Little Mystery" (1938). The late Trent story that is uncollected in Trent Intervenes, "The Ministering Angel" (1938), also deals with ingenious schemes, although this time they are not perpetrated by a rogue, but by a more sympathetic character.
A few of the tales are Golden Age, puzzle plot murder mysteries; two of these are the best stories in the collection, "The Sweet Shot" (1937) and "Trent and the Bad Dog" (1937). The plotting style of these latter two works is unbelievably close to Agatha Christie; if they had been published anonymously, I would have attributed them to Christie herself. Christie is on record as regarding Trent's Last Case as one of the three best mysteries of all time, so there is close affinity between the two writers. "The Sweet Shot" is also one of Bentley's few excursions into the technology oriented tales popular among the Realists of his day.
Trent does most of his sleuthing by engaging in conversation with members of the working class and lower middle class, and painlessly extracting information from them in passing, about the upper class suspects with whom they have been in innocent contact. These working class characters are usually shown to be nice pleasant people, although occasionally they can be crooked. Trent is suave, smooth and debonair, not to mention exquisitely well mannered and correct, and is intended to be the opposite of the dramatic, eccentric sleuths of other writers. He is a decently behaved upper middle class professional man, who is always polite to the tradesmen with whom he comes into contact. It is a relation that can have all sorts of political meanings read into it: there is almost an economy of information, which flows from the workers to the upper middle class Trent. Trent then analyses the information, generating hypotheses about by whom and how the crime was committed. Trent in turns sends this information on to the police, and to his editors and the public in form of newspaper dispatches (Trent is a working reporter, although infinitely more genteel than the "Front Page" style American reporters of the era. Bentley was a newspaperman himself, specializing in editorials for a well known newspaper of the time.) The passage of information to the police is a well marked out, discrete event in the stories: Trent often writes the police letters summarizing what he has learned, for example. The information chain starts with the working class characters themselves, who are always watching, watching, watching the behavior of upper class bad guys, recording it all. They function almost like a monitor or an error log in a computer program. They also are somewhat like the Chorus in a Greek play. They do not seem to be in a position to do anything with the information they gather about the bad guys, but they record it all.
While Trent makes disapproving noises about the rogues' behaviors, sometimes dispensing little sermonettes at the end of the stories, Bentley clearly had considerable sympathy for many of his rogues. The stinging class resentment that animates the villain of "The Public Benefactor" doubtless struck a chord in many of Bentley's readers. The ingenious mystery plot of this tale also serves as a metaphor for full scale class revolt, with the Greek Chorus of working people finally doing something to revolt against the upper classes.
Rogue literature in general centers around public desire to tweak the noses of authority figures. Bentley clearly hated doctors, thought lawyers and judges were always rude, condescending, and offensive, and often crooks, and enjoyed mocking the clergy. Bentley also follows another standard pattern of the Rogue school: having his rogues dress in the clothes of the upper classes as part of their plots. The breaking down of class distinctions, with characters moving from one social class to another, forms a key plot pattern in several of the tales: "The Public Benefactor", "The Ordinary Hairpins" (1916). The heroine of "The Clever Cockatoo" (1914) gets better from her illness only when she participates in lower class Italian life, a memorable scene with symbolic overtones. These attitudes are especially noticeable in the earliest stories in the collection, those dating from 1914 - 1916.
Bentley saves most of his opprobrium for foreigners, especially Americans, who often turn out to be no good. The early Agatha Christie also had an obsession about Americans. Nor will the "what's-a-matta-you" dialect of the Italian suspect in "Trent and the Bad Dog" endear him to Italian-Americans. Bentley is far more progressive with women's issues; the portrait of the battered wife in "The Sweet Shot" is one of the most important in Golden Age mystery fiction, along with Mary Roberts Rinehart's "Alibi For Isabel".
Bentley's creative imagination clearly felt that apartment houses somehow were likely to break out into physical violence, as happens in three of these tales. The violence in two happens on stage, involving the police vs. rogues, and reminds one of thrillers of the John Buchan - Edgar Wallace variety. Buchan was Bentley's publisher, a link between two writers who otherwise do not seem very close artistically. This sort of violence does not happen very often in British Golden Age detective fiction, although John Dickson Carr included such mild thriller elements as part of his finales in novels like Hag's Nook (1933).
Bentley's stories are short and to the point, with little excess baggage. But they often come in pairs, with each being a variation on a theme. There are two Agatha Christie style murder mysteries, set in the English countryside; two tales about rogues who wind up battling the police in apartment houses; two tales about people who ingeniously disappear; two tales about scholars assaulted in the countryside; and two tales about English people traveling in the Mediterranean, who suffer from plots trying to convince them that they are going crazy. (This last plot, sans the Mediterranean setting, is a fixture of works like Gaslight. Was Bentley the first to use it, back in 1914? Lots of Bentley stories deal with people who are trapped in bad relationships or lives, and would like to escape.) This doubling allows Bentley to explore new ideas, but which are related to the plot of a previous tale. It also gives the collection as a whole a sort of artistic unity. There are other parallelisms which run orthogonal to these story pairs: there are two stories with mischievous animals, and two tales with courageous young girls who are down on their luck.
Bentley liked to make mystery plots out of complex word-play and literary allusions; this works better in "The Old-Fashioned Apache" (1937) than in "The Inoffensive Captain" (1914), but it never achieves a major triumph. One suspects it influenced similar linguistic mannerisms in Dorothy L. Sayers' first collection, Lord Peter Views the Body. Both writers break out in French, for example, Sayers in "The Article in Question". This is not Sayers' finest hour, either. As far as I can tell, no other Golden Age writers took them up on this, and the tradition died out, which is probably just as well. Bentley knew Sayers through their association with the Detection Club, and he wrote a Sayers parody called "Greedy Night". The best parts of this spoof are a series of playful cultural references early on, especially a nice comic bit about a medieval manuscript, but is otherwise ordinary. It does satirically pick up on Sayers' habit of having both the upper classes and intellectuals discuss abstruse subjects in the most frightfully casual language and slang.
Actually, given the complex patterns of British Golden Age history, it is hard to tell who influenced whom. Detective historian Sayers was aware of Bentley's magazine stories, for she included two of them in her anthologies, long before Bentley collected them in book form. Also, "The Clever Cockatoo" (1914), a story with a known early date, almost certainly influenced Sayers' "The Man With The Copper Fingers". (These two unpleasant horror stories are among my least favorite of their authors' work.) Similarly, "The Vanishing Lawyer" (1937) takes us into the territory of Freeman Will Crofts and his followers (Henry Wade, Father Knox) with its ingenious alibis, as does "The Unknown Peer" (1938); it is hard to tell who anticipated whom here, since Bentley had pioneered the use of clever alibis in his novels before Crofts had published a line. Inquiring minds want to know!
H. Warner Allen's "Tokay of the Comet Year" (1930) is a little piece mixing spies with detection. Both Allen's spies, and the rare wine "background" material are charmingly done. However, his plot, while complex and logically constructed, is very easily anticipated: I guessed each twist before it came up. The combination of spy material and puzzle plot detective story seems to be fairly common in fiction in the British tradition, especially among intuitionists (see Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Carr); I have seen it less often in more purely American writers, although Baynard Kendrick's The Odor of Violets is an American example. When Americans need to introduce thriller elements into their tales, they have the underworld and gangsters to draw on. The more class conscious British tended to use either rogues or spies, instead; both gentlemen jewel thieves and master spies, whatever their moral depredations, tend to be proper members of the upper classes. The use of spies often has the side effect of adding unpleasant doses of chauvinism and the-end-justifies-the-means moral decay to the generally more morally decent detective tale.
As Jack Adrian points out, Allen's detective in "Tokay of the Comet Year", William Clerihew, seems to be named in tribute to Edmund Clerihew Bentley. In 1933 Allen would bring back his amateur sleuth in the novel Mr. Clerihew: Wine Merchant, and in 1936 he wrote Trent's Own Case with Bentley.
The Year of the Comet (1992) is also the title of one of the best mystery adventure films of recent years. Like Allen's story, it deals with rare wine, but otherwise there is no sign of influence between the two works. Both simply refer to a rare, real life vintage, "Tokay of the Comet Year". I would be surprised if the film's creators Peter Yates and William Goldman were even aware of Allen's story's existence.
The Poisoned Chocolates Case is a greatly expanded version of Berkeley's short story "The Avenging Chance" (1929). "The Avenging Chance" is a good detective story, with an ingenious solution, and sound, clever clues that enable the detective to deduce it. Berkeley makes this solution one of the seven explanations in The Poisoned Chocolates Case. It is far and away the best one.
The other solutions often point out how the crime can be brought home against one or another suspect. These solutions are not that different from material found in many other Golden Age, traditional mystery novels. Golden Age mysteries often have a scene two-thirds way through, where the sleuth is discussing the crime with a friendly policeman or Watson, and where they outline the cases against all the suspects in the story. Each case will discuss that suspect's motives, opportunities, alibis, etc. This is essentially what Berkeley does in The Poisoned Chocolates Case. Except that he elevates each such case against a different suspect into a "solution". Such cases against suspects are often a fairly routine part of both Golden Age mysteries in general, and The Poisoned Chocolates Case.
The Poisoned Chocolates Case is written in a witty, literate style. Its sparkling humor is a major argument in its favor.
However as a mystery plot, it adds only a little to the ingenuity already present in "The Avenging Chance".
The Silk Stocking Murders spoils its mystery by immediately signaling to the reader whodunit. It is obvious who the killer is right away: just wait until the only Jewish character shows up (Chapter 5). Sure enough, this Jewish financier, no less, turns out at the end to be the sadistic serial killer. Berkeley's books are repeatedly marred by his bitter anti-Semitism. The killer's first victim is a vicar's daughter, completing Berkeley's hate-filled portrait of Jews as a menace to Christian women.
Queen's The Greek Coffin Mystery (1932) is one of several Queen novels with more than one solution: these were probably influenced by Bentley's Trent's Last Case and Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case.
Commentary on Alan Melville:
Martin Edwards' Introduction (2015) praises the book's humor, but also notes its "slender plot". This is an accurate assessment of the book's strengths and weaknesses.
Influence of Anthony Berkeley. Quick Curtain shows signs of being influenced by Anthony Berkeley. The sinister chocolates in Quick Curtain (end of Chapter 11, end of Chapter 13) seem like a tribute to Berkeley's The Poisoned Chocolates Case. SPOILERS. It turns out to be a sort of baggy pants, burlesque version of Berkeley's plot.
More importantly, the tone of satirical comedy in Quick Curtain recalls the witty writing in such Berkeley novels as The Poisoned Chocolates Case.
The solution of Quick Curtain has aspects that recall some of Berkeley's solutions. BIG SPOILERS. Inspector WIlson manages to get a completely wrong solution to the mystery, echoing some of Berkeley's mysteries. Berkeley in turn got this idea from E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case.
Influence of E.R. Punshon. Another mystery writer whose satire might have influenced Melville is E.R. Punshon. Both Quick Curtain and Punshon's Genius in Murder (1932) satirize mediocre bosses who take credit for the work of lower-downs. In Quick Curtain (start of Chapter 2) producer Douglas B. Douglas takes credit for everything in his stage show, when much of the actual work is done by stage manager Herbert Jenkinson. Herbert's lower status is emphasized by the overalls he wears at work.
Influence of Freeman Wills Crofts. Quick Curtain shows some influences from Freeman Wills Crofts:
I grew up on the theatrical novels of Ngaio Marsh. Marsh's theatrical people, whatever their problems with ego or temperament, are among the world's most sophisticated people. Most have lots of talent, and uniquely vibrant personalities. By contrast, the characters in Quick Curtain are mainly talentless mediocrities. They have risen to their present positions through dumb luck, ruthless use of publicity, and by exploiting the bad taste of the British public. It is a much harsher portrait of the British theater than I am used to.
One might note that Marsh's first theatrical mystery Enter A Murderer (1935) appeared a year after Quick Curtain. Mysteries backstage at theaters appeared long before these: see "The Affair at the Novelty Theatre" in The Case of Miss Elliot (1905) by Emmuska, Baroness Orczy.
Architecture. The revolving stage at the theater (Chapter 2) is an example of the Golden Age interest in architecture. Because the stage moves, it can be considered an example of Kinetic Architecture. Such Kinetic Architecture is a perennial subject in George Harmon Coxe.
Landscape. One also enjoys the parody of the "short-cut" in the woods (end of Chapter 9). Golden Age British mystery novels often contain detailed rural landscapes, and quite a few contain short-cut paths that play a role in the plot.
Commentary on R.A.J. Walling:
Much of the novel is instead taken up by the efforts of the hero to help various suspects evade the police and murderous villains, hiding them in various remote locations. We get a detailed look a high speed driving in Britain and the Continent, sometimes reaching up to speeds of forty miles per hour. Both the road scenes and the love interest in this book are charmingly done. The book is pleasantly written, but suffers from triviality. It seems destined to be placed in the "charming but minor" category.
Influence of E. C. Bentley. Like later works of Walling, That Dinner at Bardolph's shows the influence of E. C. Bentley. As in Bentley, the tone throughout is suave and genteel, with many literary quotations in the dialogue. Walling shares Bentley's genuine refinement.
Walling also gives a Bentley-like critique of the stock market, and the sinister manipulators who control it. The hero is the only one in the story who is opposed to manipulating the market using inside information. The other characters all denounce him as a dangerous leftist for this, something he hotly denies. Today, of course, insider trading is seen as a serious felony, and people who do it are sent to prison for many years. Apparently in 1920's Britain, it was still legal and approved by many business people.
The Chauffeur. Also Bentley-like: the treatment of servants as real characters, and not as stick figures. The hero's lower class chauffeur, Fenstock, shows fantastic resourcefulness in his maneuvering of suspects all over Britain. He comes across as more genuinely inventive than anyone else in the book; a case can be made out that he is the genuine hero of the novel, although he is denied the love interest given the upper class hero of the book.
Mystery Plot. Walling's detective story technique in The Fatal Five Minutes is to have his suspects running endlessly around the murder scene before and during the crime, creating alibis and confusion. This does not build up much of a puzzle plot.
There is also a very implausible subplot about blackmail.
Influence of E. C. Bentley. Like E. C. Bentley, R.A.J. Walling was a British journalist. Walling's techniques in The Fatal Five Minutes recall E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case (1913):
Mystery Plot. At the book's end, Tolefree announces that he had long known the identity of the killer, from early in the investigation. Two other innocent characters reveal that they also had long since figured out who done it. Unfortunately, I too realized right away who the killer was. And I suspect that most readers will spot the killer immediately, in the same early chapter. The book's mystery puzzle is simple and obvious: which greatly weakens any mystery plot interest.
As in The Fatal Five Minutes, Prove It, Mr. Tolefree has characters wandering around the murder scene at the time of the crime.
Mystery Traditions. Prove It, Mr. Tolefree suggests Walling is attempting to embody some traditions of the British Realist school. In fact, Prove It, Mr. Tolefree suggests an influence from The Sweepstake Murders (1931) by J.J. Connington. SPOILERS: Both stories contain alibi puzzles, on murders taking place in scenic rural areas. Connington's alibi puzzle is sophisticated, but unfortunately Walling's is simple. Its easily guessed solution identifies the killer. In general, alibi puzzles are a standard, important kind of mystery puzzle in British Realist school writers.
Industry. The victim Sir William Tolliver is a famed experimental chemist and industrialist. Walling seems to be paying tribute to the importance of engineering and industry in Britain. Recognition of the role science plays in society is part of the Realist School tradition. Unfortunately Prove It, Mr. Tolefree doesn't show us any of Tolliver's factories or laboratories. Walling will be more detailed with the mineral processing operations in Dartmoor in The Corpse With the Blue Cravat and waterworks in The Corpse Without a Clue.
Landscape, Photography, Description. On the positive side, there is good descriptive writing in the account of the crime scene (Chapters 2, 4). This is a spectacular rural region in Cornwall. A map might have added to readers' enjoyment of this complex rural area. Unfortunately none is provided, at least in the American edition I read. Still, I was able to follow the layout of the landscape, from the text of the novel.
The crime scene is in three dimensions. It stretches out along the banks of a stream, whose bend gives the area two dimensions. One can also look down from high banks into the stream canyon: giving the region height.
Tolefree creates elaborate timetables of the movements of witnesses along the region. This gives the account a fourth dimension: that of time.
The account of the photographer extends the crime scene description (end of Chapter 5).
Both Connington's The Sweepstake Murders and Prove It, Mr. Tolefree have a photographer, who makes photos at the time and place of the murder. Unlike Connington, Walling doesn't use the photos as part of the mystery puzzle. But Walling does give the photos an atmospheric treatment (Chapter 5). These suggest the ability of photography to organize reality, into a series of precise images. Both writers also specify the exact times when the photos are taken.
We get a full sketch of the photographer, his tourist town photo shop, and his studio (start of Chapter 3, Chapter 5). Walling suggests that these are something of a typical tourist institution in sea resort towns. Walling is interested in rural Britain and its organizations.
The other best descriptive section (Chapter 11) does not involve the crime scene. But its first half does look at other Cornwall scenery. It takes place on the road out of Cornwall: a reversal of our introduction to Cornwall, which drove along the road in (start of Chapter 2).
The second half of Chapter 11 is a brief but involving look at a nursing home.
Sleuths. Tolefree is a private detective. But he portrays himself as an insurance agent. This gives him a "cover" in his work, so that people he interviews on a case do not realize he is a crime investigator. We read about this aspect of Tolefree early in the book, while his character is being introduced - but we don't see many actual examples of Tolefree's undercover work in the novel.
Tolefree is a "gentleman", and can pass as another gentleman's house guest, which he also uses as cover for his detective work. This "gentleman" aspect is perhaps less stressed in other Tolefree novels, which emphasize instead Tolefree's middle-class businessman status.
As a detective-for-hire who employs subterfuge to talk to witnesses and investigate crimes, Tolefree recalls the 19th Century sleuths of the Casebook tradition.
We learn a little about Tolefree's Watson, the novel's narrator James Farrar. Farrar is a series character in the novels.
BIG SPOILER. The butler-chauffeur-valet Toms turns out to be a resourceful, intelligent character (Chapter 4, middle of Chapter 16). Like the chauffeur Fenstock in That Dinner at Bardolph's, he is shown as a man with reasoning gifts. These are respectful portraits of servants and the working class. I confess I enjoyed the surprise revelations at the end about Toms' role, more than any of the solution of the mystery plot.
Architecture. For one thing, instead of a conventional English country house, it takes place in a castle. This building, and the unusual Island House occupied by another family, show the Golden Age interest in architecture to advantage.
Hearing. Much of Walling's plot turns on hearing. He is interested in directions of sounds, and the ability of people to hear things through the walls of the castle. Such perceptions are integrated with his description of the castle architecture, and are often used to give it tactile reality. Listening is a basic mode for his detective. He is always trying to learn things through hearing.
Mystery Plot. For another, the plot takes several surprising turns. This is especially true of the first five chapters. After this, the police show up, and the plot is simply hashed over endlessly, till the solution is revealed in the finale (Chapter 12).
SPOILERS. This solution is logical, and surprisingly simple. In fact, what the reader thinks is the result of vast conspiracies, often turns out to be a simple thing. John Dickson Carr did a similar effect in "Cabin B-13", of reducing the complex to a simple explanation.
Middle Class Characters: Likable and Sensible. Most of Walling's characters are quite sympathetic. Except for the murder victim himself, a young rotter, they tend to be pleasant people. Aside from the aristocratic family that owns the castle, most work for a living, and could be described as middle class. Even the banker and the famous singer are self-made men.
Tolefree himself is a working private detective, something of a rarity in the British mystery novel of the era. He is an unpretentious, low key character, polite in the Trent tradition. He is depicted as a business person, and one shown interacting with the other middle class business people of the novel on a basis of equality. His relationships with the others start right at the beginning of the novel, and are a part of the warp and woof of the plot from its outset. His "drab" office, with its clerk and regular business hours, also underlines his detective's middle class status. His Watson, a salesman named James Farrar, is also brought into the plot when one of the characters hires him for a business transaction.
The little biography of Walling in the book similarly emphasizes his professional activity. It describes his career as a journalist in Plymouth, England, and describes his mystery writing as a direct outgrowth of his second career as the Magistrate of Plymouth.
The characters of the book show refreshing good sense. Few of them show the arrogance or obsessiveness that grip many Golden Age characters of other writers. As members of the middle class, they are used to working within limitations, and responding resiliently to adversity and obstacles. Mrs. Stratton, in particular, responds far more intelligently and flexibly that one might expect. Her behavior in such a sensible manner causes the author to respect her; had she gotten on a society lady high horse he would have viewed her with contempt.
At the other end of the social spectrum, the servants also show a business like seriousness about their work, and get treated with respect for it by Walling. For example, they make appointments with the castle guests to do valet work, just the way the middle class characters in the novel make appointments to transact business. Walling treats them as far more intelligent and perceptive than many British authors of the 1930's do.
Color and Clothes. Color imagery only shows up in Walling's The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas when he is describing men's clothes. These usually suggest the role these men play in society: blue sophisticated clothes for the popular singer, green flashy duds for the cheap society crook, brown for the observant young footman. Walling always tends to see people through their job.
Letters. The characters in Walling's book often communicate through letters. This makes each letter writer a temporary "narrator", and gives Walling's book the flavor of such 19th Century writers as Wilkie Collins. These letters are often concerned with business themselves, extending the network of business relationships in the book.
Landscape. There are few nature descriptions in the book, and little interest in the sea or the natural areas in the British countryside, unlike other 1930's authors as H.C. Bailey or John Rhode.
Links to The Williamsons. Charles N. Williamson and Alice Williamson's "The Adventure of the Jacobean House", from The Scarlet Runner (1905), also anticipates R.A.J. Walling's The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas. Both stories involve a detective who checks into an old, architecturally complex building, and who does much sleuthing in the middle of the night while checking out strange passages in the building.
Older Characters. Walling was already near 60 when he began writing detective fiction. Unlike the largely young authors of the Golden Age, in The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas he is more oriented to his older characters. They come across as "normal", his viewpoint characters, the ones most richly drawn. The young people tend to be seen as either supportive or as problems to the older characters. This is clearly an older person's point of view on society. At the least, it offers a refreshing change from all the Bright Young Things in other Golden Age novels.
Landscape and Character Movement. The Corpse in the Coppice is another Walling mystery in which the movements of people around the countryside form the main subject of the detection. In this, it resembles The Corpse With the Blue Cravat (1938).
The countryside is the least eccentric or unusual here of any Walling novel, with no unusual architecture. It consists of a series of middle class homes and farms, joined by roads and footpaths. The local railway also plays a big role. Despite the sheer conventionality of this setting, Walling manages to create much interest from it.
The landscape includes stiles, footbridges, culverts and hills. Such high and low regions gives a mild three-dimensional aspect to the landscape, including height as well as North-South and East-West as dimensions. This 3D quality is less extreme than in Prove It, Mr. Tolefree, though.
Gates and doorways are prominent in the landscape. So is a small shed. Fences, walls and hedges are described. All of these features give an architectural aspect to the landscape.
The detectives spend much time trying to reconstruct the movements of the characters from physical clues they have left behind, such as footprints and tobacco ash. These are some of the better parts of the book (Chapters 1-3, 6-9). A preliminary meeting between two characters is also reconstructed based on physical evidence (Chapter 1.2).
This reconstruction of trails is linked to the author James Fenimore Cooper, who included such tracking in his novels of early America (Chapter 1.2).
Tolefree sometimes comes up with ingenious ideas, as to how the movements of suspects can be fit into the tracks the detectives discover, in unexpected ways (Chapters 6.1, 9.2). This is some of the best detective work in the novel.
Links to Freeman. Several aspects of recall the mysteries of R. Austin Freeman, then at the height of his fame and prestige. These aspects include:
Motorcycle. A motorcycle plays a role in the plot. Motorcycles frequently show up in the mysteries of the British Realist school, of which Walling is a member. We learn about evidence left by motorcycle tracks (Chapter 6.1).
Hearing. There is an interesting discussion of what the sound perception of a motorcyclist is like (Chapter 6.1).
Mystery Plot. A shooting is once again the subject of a Tolefree investigation. Shootings lend themselves to a geographical investigation: where were the victim and killer standing, what was the direction of the shot, how far away were they, how did the killer escape - all geographical questions raised by the murder investigation.
The biggest problem in The Corpse in the Coppice is the solution of the actual mystery at the end of the novel. This raises some worthwhile social issues, and has some surprising features. So it is by no means lacking in interest. Mainly however, it is disappointing.
One finds it hard to believe that the innocent characters would not have spoken up about their problems long before. This is one of those novels in which the characters lie to and stonewall the police, preferring to keep their personal problems private rather than helping to find the killer. Such silence here seems implausible, but perhaps it was consistent with the mores of the time.
Physiognomy?. Tolefree looks into a suspect's face, and immediately learns that he is concealing a secret (Chapter 2.1). Such ability to read character from appearance shows up in some other Tolefree novels, where it is dubbed "physiognomy". I find this alleged ability implausible in the extreme.
Sleuths. Tolefree's policeman friend Pierce of Scotland Yard returns. By this time, Pierce has been promoted to Detective-Inspector. Pierce plays a sizable role throughout The Corpse in the Coppice, unlike some other Tolefree novels.
The book takes place near Pierce's home town, the apparently fictitious small city of Netherminster. Pierce frequently rhapsodizes about how beautiful the rural scenery is.
Pierce attributes his interest in becoming a policeman, to his early experiences fishing in this bucolic region (Chapter 1.2). As a youth he learned how to track fish, reconstructing their trails and behavior from physical evidence. This led him to an interest in the police-work of reconstructing crooks' behavior from such physical evidence.
This discussion in The Corpse in the Coppice is all-too-brief. If this were a contemporary novel, there would be a 100-page flashback, showing Pierce's youth and choosing of a police career. This would emphasize soap opera, and Pierce would be shown suffering endless traumas. Instead, this Golden Age novel simply has a few paragraphs about Pierce's background, and suggests that his childhood was happy!
Walling's other series detective, Bill Garstang, makes a brief off-stage appearance, as the author of a letter to his friend and police colleague Pierce (start of Chapter 10). He will play a bigger role in The Corpse Without a Clue (1944). His letter in The Corpse in the Coppice perhaps recalls the elaborate letter-narration technique in The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas.
There are recurrent subjects in these books:
Both books also share another kind of character: a learned philosophical individual, a vigorous, unpretentious man of around forty, who takes an enthusiastic amateur interest in crime detection. In Foot, we are talking about a Professor of Moral Philosophy; in Clue, a Canon of a Cathedral Town. In both novels this character is vaguely comic, there being a contrast between his scholarly calling and his zest for detection.
Walling has plainly been reading Dorothy L. Sayers' The Nine Tailors (1934). Both the setting, involving a mill on a small river, and elements of the crime plot, recall Sayers' book. The mill and river location also recalls Knox' The Footsteps at the Lock (1928).
Bill Pronzini, in 1001 Midnights, has rightly complained of Walling's dullness, and his willingness to ramble. This 300 page book goes on way too long, and would be much better at half its length. The best parts are the chapters describing the original crime (Chapters 1 - 5). The story picks up again in Chapters 7.3 and 8.1, which discover the McGuffin driving the plot, and which also contribute to the physical setting which is the charm of the tale. The other best section of the book is Chapter 11.3, which reconstructs the actual murder itself, and which also involves the book's location. However, the rest of the solution in Chapter 12, shows no imaginative ideas.
Walling's books all tend to be in their best in their early sections, when they are unrolling their plots. Walling's novels contain huge amounts of dull sections. One hesitates to call this padding. It seems much more to be material that Walling tried to make interesting, and failed. In Foot's case, this often deals with the wanderings of the suspects around in the dark, or with Tolefree's endless reconstructions of these wanderings using deduction - often from very shaky premises, in my opinion. These reconstructions, and the use of logic to analyze them, seem vaguely in the tradition of Ronald Knox.
Mystery Plot: Who done it?. The biggest problem with Marooned with Murder is the way the mystery plot is structured. Tolefree announces near the start (Chapter 2.2) that all six of the suspects are guilty, and covering up the crime as a group. Nothing in the rest of the book challenges this idea. SPOILERS. All six do indeed turn out guilty at the solution, exactly as perceived throughout the book.
This structure eliminates the main puzzle of most mysteries: Who done it?
It also gets rid of most mysteriousness about the situation. We KNOW the situation in Marooned with Murder in broad outlines from the start: someone killed the victim, and everyone is covering up the crime.
It is also easy to guess motive, in broad terms: the victim did "something bad", and these sympathetic six suspects took the law into their own hands and killed him. Sure enough, that's the motive revealed at the book's end. I didn't guess exactly what the bad guy did, though: a bit of a surprise.
Marooned with Murder thus eliminates many important aspects of standard mystery fiction: who done it, the situation behind the crime, motive. Getting rid of these things leaves a dull book.
Perhaps if Marooned with Murder had been a riveting read, I'd be hailing it as an "experimental mystery". And perhaps Walling deserves credit for trying something new. But the actual result seems to me a boring failure.
It should be stressed that many of Walling's better books are murder mysteries constructed along standard paradigms. The way Marooned with Murder abandons many elements of mystery fiction is not typical of Walling's better books.
Mystery Plot: Where Is The Body?. Marooned with Murder announces on its second page, that during the case Tolefree found the hiding place of a missing body. And halfway through the novel, Tolefree indeed reveals where the corpse is buried (Chapter 5.1).
The location did in fact surprise me. Unfortunately, as a mystery puzzle this is not brilliant:
Politics. A brief radio newscast gives two sides of news about the Spanish Civil War (Chapter 4.3). Unfortunately, we get no details, aside from learning that the newscast gives one report from Seville and one from Madrid. This anticipates the political polarization looked at in The Corpse With the Red-Headed Friend. We are already seeing hints that Britain in the late 1930's is deeply divided politically.
Architecture. Marooned with Murder is another Walling mystery set in a castle, like The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas and The Corpse With the Eerie Eye. Unfortunately, there is nothing interesting architecturally about the castle in Marooned with Murder. It is depicted in generic terms: It has rooms, a tower and a dungeon.
Landscape. The landscape is a little better. The best passages in Marooned with Murder are landscape-based:
Servants. The servants in Marooned with Murder seem like romanticized exotic figures, and thus none too believable. They are a lot less interesting than the more realistically treated servants in That Dinner at Bardolph's, Prove It, Mr. Tolefree and The Corpse With the Eerie Eye.
On the plus side, like other Walling servants, they are honest and capable.
This book is set in Dartmoor, a unique place that is vividly described. Walling is most interested in human dwellings in Dartmoor, unlike Thomas Kindon's Murder in the Moor (1929), which is mainly interested in natural formations:
There are also a wholes series of streams in The Corpse With the Grimy Glove, leading to a "maze" of water passages.
Country house. The Corpse With the Grimy Glove involves a house party at an English country mansion. Despite the cliches, country house settings are none too common in Golden Age mysteries. See a bibliography at the Golden Age of Detection Wiki. The Corpse With the Grimy Glove is perhaps atypical of country house mysteries, in that the detectives are not staying at the country house, and there are plenty of scenes not at the house itself.
Physiognomy?. Tolefree discovers things by looking into suspects' faces and reading their emotions: fear, guilt, innocence (Chapter 2). Tolefree also used this to determine the guilty party at the end of Prove It, Mr. Tolefree, reading guilty knowledge in a suspect's face.
Tolefree calls this method "physiognomy". This might not be an accurate use of the term: "physiognomy" usually refers to linking permanent personality and character traits to facial structure, whereas Tolefree is simply reading emotions. Physiognomy as traditionally defined has been discredited since the late 19th Century, and is seen as a pseudo-science. By contrast, simply reading emotions, as Tolefree does, is legitimate under ordinary circumstances.
I find it a doubtful method in crime stories though. Traditionally in mystery novels, the guilty are skilled at concealing their emotions.
However, the use of emotion-reading is fairer in The Corpse With the Grimy Glove than in Prove It, Mr. Tolefree, because Walling provides more information about what the characters' faces are doing and looking. Hence the reader has more chance to make deductions and interpret these looks correctly.
A Conventional Mystery. The Corpse With the Red-Headed Friend seems to be an attempt to write a highly conventional detective novel:
It has a painfully conventional cast of suspects:
Narrative Structure. The storytelling moves backwards and forwards in time throughout the opening, making for an agreeably complex approach. This involves not actual flashbacks, but witnesses talking about past events.
The list of suspects is pleasant (Chapter 2.1). Many mysteries have such a list at the start, before the novel opens. Here however, the list is treated as a document created by one of the characters, policeman Winslow. I like the way the characters' ages are given: something rare in mystery novel character lists.
Politics. The left-wing nephew is dismissively called a "Bolshy" by the right-wing characters. Literally, this would imply he was a Communist. However, it might simply be used as a general term for anyone left-of-center, and perhaps he is a Socialist or anarcho-syndicalist instead. As a person, the nephew is generally treated respectfully and even sympathetically by the novel. But his politics are not much explored.
We do see the tensions and polarization between left and right-wing Britons at this time (Chapter 2.2):
Such wealthy upper class suspects as the Colonel and later the victim's widow (Chapter 7.1) are outraged that the police would dare to question them as murder suspects. They believe their social position should put them above such things. Walling clearly takes a negative view of these rich people's attitudes.
The nephew, however left-wing, is a member of the upper classes. So is the poor man who wants the marry the daughter: he is from a "good family", but now reduced to poverty. This makes everyone a bona fide member of the upper crust.
Business and Manufacturing. The Corpse With the Red-Headed Friend its explicitly set in 1938, not long before World War II broke out in September 1939. A brief, vague mention of the ominous "European situation" (Chapter 1.1) is one of the book's few references to this.
Both the businessman victim, and British manufacturers in general, are seen as growing rich from Government orders (Chapter 1.2). While this is not made explicit, one suspects it is part of a build-up of equipment for the coming war.
The traditionally upper class Colonel disdains the victim for running a business (Chapter 2.1). He thinks the victim should instead have restricted himself to the life of a country gentleman of leisure. One suspects that Walling is making fun of the Colonel, his upper class anti-business attitude, and his traditional Country Gentleman ways. Instead, Walling shows a certain admiration for slickly dressed men from the city (start of Chapter 2.3, Chapter 3.1).
The victim Thomas Entwhistle is an engineer as well as a businessman (briefly mentioned in the middle of Chapter 4.3). In this he recalls another technologist-entrepreneur, Sir William Tolliver in Walling's Prove It, Mr. Tolefree. Walling sounds sympathetic to this aspect of both men, but unfortunately shows us little of the technology of their business enterprises.
The title The Corpse With the Eerie Eye is good. SPOILER. But it turns out that the body has an "eerie" eye because the victim had been using dope. This is not a very interesting plot development, and a disappointing explanation of the title.
Sleuths. Philip Tolefree is once again called into a case, and asked to pose as a gentleman house-guest of an upper class man, in a remote country area. However, so many people seem aware of his being a detective, that he hardly has any undercover role. We learn a little about Tolefree's efforts during the war (Chapter 3).
Tolefree's policeman friend Inspector Pierce of Scotland Yard returns in the book's final section (Chapters 7-10). Tolefree works fairly independently of Pierce in these chapters, however.
Tolefree's Watson in other books, James Farrar, is seemingly briefly referred to, although not by name (Chapter 3.1).
Landscape and Setting. The Corpse With the Eerie Eye is another Walling mystery where a stream in the countryside provides a setting (end of Chapter 3). Unfortunately, this landscape, while pleasant, is much simpler than the best such settings in Walling novels. It does have a good name: Goonbarrow Downs.
The Castle-Dinas of the British title, is a small town near an actual castle, an old surviving Norman Keep. Once a year the Feast of Castle-Dinas becomes a large scale traditional English festival. The Feast is briefly described (Chapter 2.2). Unfortunately, this material is under-developed, and is going to disappoint readers eager for elaborate accounts of village fetes.
The man-of-all-work Peter has an unusual room (Chapter 3.2). This is in the Golden Age tradition of interest in architecture. While simple, I have never seen anything like it in other mysteries.
Society: A Servant and his War Service. Peter is the most likable character in the novel, and an example of Walling's interest in servants (Chapters 3.1, 3.2).
Peter's war service is stressed (Chapter 3.1). This is a forcible reminder of the contribution the British working classes made to the war effort. One suspects that Britishers with a social conscience were emphasizing the achievements of a class that was often unfairly despised by the rich. For other examples see:
The Corpse With the Eerie Eye keeps offering alternative solutions, before the ultimate true solution is revealed. Most of these false "solutions" involve different combinations of suspects working together, in different ways or for different reasons. Walling is working hard, trying to provide lots of mystery plot ideas. But most of these false solutions seem like mechanical variants of each other. They are just not interesting or creative. The true ultimate solution is just another variation, too.
The multiple solutions might reflect the influence of E.C. Bentley and his Trent's Last Case.
Another Walling mystery with a group of suspects who are all working guiltily together: Marooned with Murder. In that book, it is revealed early on that the suspects are all guilty as a group. And the novel considers a number of different ways guilt can be broken up and apportioned to different people.
A Corpse By Any Other Name starts out well, but gradually becomes less and less interesting as it goes along. Its first few chapters are full of fairly interesting material, but eventually it turns into a huge shaggy dog story. The reader does not know much more at the end than they did in Chapter Four.
Comparison with The Corpse Without a Clue. After the first chapter, Walling introduces a plot about two men who have disappeared, and their complex trail of espionage activities from Lisbon to England. This anticipates a similar, even more elaborate and ambiguous plot in Walling's next novel, The Corpse Without a Clue (1944).
In general, much of the imagery of Name will reappear in Clue, but in a more complex, less straightforward, and more mysterious manner:
Mystery Plot. Most of the Bentley influence found in Walling's earlier books has completely disappeared. The book is mainly notable for the extreme maze like aspect of the plot. It resembles, to a degree, such John Dickson Carr books as The Arabian Nights Mystery (1936), in the complexities of what is going on, and the strange twists and turns. Unfortunately, unlike Carr's work, Walling's book is not sustained. He runs out of inspiration after the first half of the book (Chapters 1 - 5). Nor is the book's ultimate solution distinguished. It does not really explain some of the odder features of the characters' behavior. Still, there are impressive moments in the first half. Anybody who builds a maze deserves some credit!
The events in Clue are often contradictory, and hard to explain. Walling calls the attempt to build a coherent, logical explanation for them an attempt to "rationalize" them. This is a good word, and a good concept. He also uses this word in Foot, but not as frequently. Reasoning in Walling often proceeds by discussion between Tolefree and one of his friends, who can be a policeman, the narrator, or an amateur friend who is joining in the detection. These characters often discuss logic itself, and the nature of reasoning. Such concepts as "rationalizing" help describe the kinds of reasoning going on in the discussions far more precisely. They form a meta-level to the discussion, one that points out and makes explicit its formal character as reasoning. "Rationalizing" would be a good term to introduce in discussions of mystery fiction in general. For example Baroness Orczy's stories often proceed by rationalization. They focus on contradictory situations that it seems very difficult to unite into a self-consistent explanation. At the end of the tale, The Old Man in the Corner succeeds in doing just that.
Mystery Plot: Outsiders. In both Marooned with Murder (Chapter 3.2) and The Corpse Without a Clue (Chapter 1.2), Tolefree suggests something radical, and heretofore unconsidered: that some "third party" or outsider might have committed a crime, that has previously been routinely ascribed to some insider. SPOILERS. In Marooned with Murder, this suggestion turns out to be false. In The Corpse Without a Clue, the suggestion of an outsider turns out to be true.
Abduction. The opening abduction from the train in The Corpse Without a Clue shares imagery with a more upbeat event: the rescue of narrator Farrar by Fergus in Marooned with Murder (Chapter 1):
Sleuths. As well as being a Tolefree novel, this book brings back Walling's long absent series character Garstang, star of two previous books, Stroke of One (1931) and Behind the Yellow Blind (1932). This novel will be Garstang's third and final appearance. He is treated fairly casually as a police colleague of Inspector Pierce. Little indicates that he is a Walling series sleuth.