An ordinary weekend get-together at the home of George Fosdyke in Brensford takes a strange turn or two when a) a sudden storm floods the region, isolating the homes and b) a party of three strangers showing up, desperate to visit Fosdyke’s neighbour, Donald Carswell. Oh, and I suppose I should mention c) that when the flood-waters subside the next morning, Carswell is found dead, alone in his house.
Soon, Scotland Yard is summoned, in the form of Inspector Arnold and by a stunning coincidence, his friend and sleuthing partner Desmond Merrion happens to be staying down the road. Soon they realise that Carswell was more than just the village grumpy old man – he was up to his neck in a criminal conspiracy. But which of his acquaintance was the one who decided to end the partnership?
I was lucky enough to get a copy of this on eBay the other day – with a dustjacket and for less than a tenner! – so I thought for once I wouldn’t let it sit on the shelf but read it as soon as possible. My John Rhode collection is growing nicely – 70% of the titles now sit on my shelf – but collecting Miles Burton, John Street’s other primary alias, is much harder going. So when I got hold of this, after doing a little happy dance, obviously, it went to the top of the TBR pile.
It’s a late title in Street’s canon – there are only four Burton titles that follow this (and 56 that precede it) – but based on my reading so far, the late Burton’s aren’t as weak as the late Rhode titles. But this one… well, it’s okay, I guess.
Street on occasion liked to tell stories about criminal conspiracies – Pinehurst, Proceed With Caution, Blackthorn House – and for me, they are his weakest tales, so when this rapidly changed from a tale of a village under threat from a flood into such a tale, I was a bit disappointed. There’s some lovely stuff with the house party coping with being forced upstairs so abandoning that aspect for a good chunk of the narrative was disappointing. Having said that it bears up a lot better than the Priestley titles as Arnold and Merrion are a more entertaining double act than Jimmy Waghorn and whoever he’s treading water with before he gives up and goes to find Priestley to ask who the murderer is.
The ending though is a problem. A certain clue, once mentioned, will either give away the murderer, if the reader has a very good memory and was paying attention or, in the other case, have the reader scratching their head wondering if they’ve been cheated. I can see what Street was going for with this one, but I’m not convinced that it works.
Still, entertaining enough, if nowhere near Street at the top of his game.
Availability: Good luck, although there is a dodgy ebook floating around out there in the ether.
Just The Facts, Ma’am: WHEN – During A Weather Event
Like yourself, I have been reading quite a lot of Cecil Street over the last few years but unlike yourself I much prefer the Rhode books to the Burton books.I’m not certain how true that would remain if I were able to read more Burtons from Street’s earlier and, I think better period from the thirties and early forties but that’s the case at present. This reading was stimulated by the presence on archive.org of a significant number of titles, most of which were uploaded by John Jermey, the person who created the GAD Wiki, and, since Street is out of copyright both here in Canada and also in Jermey’s Australia, I have no qualms about downloading those titles which are available. I have also purchased a number of titles and got some others via inter-library loan from the University of Alberta.
I wanted to express some of my thoughts about Street’s work, and since relatively few people have read much by him, aside from the recent re-issues by the British Library, I’m going to say them here because you will have at least read enough of Streets books to know what I’m talking about.
To begin with, I don’t think Street wrote classic GAD puzzle plot type mysteries in the style of Agatna Christie and John Dickson Carr in which the author strove for a dramatic denouement, a grand revelation in which the great detective suddenly achieves a reversal of what the reader has been led to believe although of course there must some sort of revelation or else there was no mystery to resolve. Not that Street never attempted such a climactic moment but I don’t think it was his forte. Rather, it seems to me that he wrote a form of police procedural with nudges to the police from the great detective character (more so in the Rhode volumes than the Burtons which may be why you prefer Burton) which of course are also nudges to the reader and which makes a dramatic reversal more difficult.
Christie’s great skill was an understanding of people and what motivates human behavior, whether that of her characters or, and of equal importance, her readers. Her solutions often depend on motive and identity rather than physical clues such as bloodstains or cigarette ash. That motive was concealed, either by the villain taking on another identity or by the purpose of some act being misunderstood.
Carr obtained his effects by hiding the means by which the crime was committed. Often this is done by concealing the actual time or place of the murder. Again, this makes a major revelation by the great detective much easier for dramatic purposes.
Street’s training and experience was that of an engineer and then an intelligence officer, resulting in a slow, step by step process of acquiring facts, forming an hypothesis, and then testing that hypothesis. It’s not for nothing that Priestley is a scientist and Merrion is a former naval intelligence officer. Street also has a strong anti-authoritarian streak and prefers less exalted surroundings than Christie or Carr. He prefers plebeian places like pubs or farms and business premises over aristocratic ballrooms and country estates. The murder is more likely to be the result of a business dispute or a robbery than an inheritance. A mechanical death trap is more common than a bash or a bullet. This step by step approach leaves less scope for a sudden reversal and the moment of truth when the reader knows who and how will vary greatly from reader to reader. Some will recognize the key factor quite early and if they do a limited number of suspects can make the perpetrator easy to identify although Street is capable of introducing extremely late in a book, something which is considered poor form in a GAD puzzle plot but which can certainly happen in police investigations.
I thoroughly enjoy reading Street for his revelations of how ordinary people lived and worked in a time which was really not that long ago and yet has already vanished. His use of scientific knowledge of the time occasionally reveals stark differences between then and now which would never appear in the non-technical world of Christie or Carr. I’m thinking in particular of nuclear energy. Street seems to think that one could create a small nuclear device that would destroy a single building or that a small, one man research firm could do nuclear research. Street was familiar with chemical explosives but the whole concept of fission or fusion was beyond the world into which he was born. That is the sort of altered worldview which his books reveal and I find it fascinating.
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Many thanks for that, Ron – I’m curious as to which book has the nuclear device in it. To clarify, I actually prefer the Rhode titles to the Burton ones in general, but the later titles, say post 1950, I’ve found Burton to be more enjoyable, as I think by then, Street had bored of Priestley. Indeed, Death In Wellington Road was touted in one publication as the “new Jimmy Waghorn” mystery. But his strongest books for me are certainly the early to middle Rhode titles – The Robthorne Mystery still standing out as the finest, I think.
The book in question is THE SECRET MEETING, dated 1951,which is something of a spy story. I quote from page 238: “He told me that the effect of the bomb would be to wreck at least the interior of the building, with fatal results to all who were in it.” Not what I would expect from even a small nuclear explosion, but I was born in 1952 rather than 1884.
I’ve not got that one. One day…
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