What do you do when you’re having a sleepless night? Well, the Reverend Peter Bordesly, the Rector of Pascombe, gets out his telescope and takes a look at the heavens. But one night in November, his gaze falls upon an isolated cottage and sees the beginnings of a devastating fire.
When the local constabulary arrives on the scene, a dead body is found in the wreckage, charred beyond all recognition. All that survives is the victim’s belongings, including some conveniently monogrammed cufflinks that leads Inspector Arnold to the victim’s identity, and a mysterious cat figurine made of platinum. When it transpires that the victim was in possession of vital defence secrets, it becomes imperative to track down his murderer – for the safety of the country itself may be at stake.
It’s a little hard to keep track of the Miles Burton titles written by Cecil Street aka John Rhode, as I’m not entirely sure which of them are Desmond Merrion titles (and if you’re only counting Merrion titles, do you could Death Leaves No Card, when he neglects to show up?). But this is the nineteenth or twentieth Miles Burton title and the timing of this is fascinating. Published in 1938, this was written when there were clearly signs of trouble brewing in Europe, and so the subject of the theft of defence secrets must have run close to the bone. Oddly, (and this isn’t a spoiler), Germany isn’t the evil foreign power of choice. I’m not up on my late-1930’s history, but clearly we were worried about more than just Hitler and his chums.
It’s a fascinating mash-up of spy thriller and whodunit, as we don’t really get to see the spying going on, just the two sleuths, Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion conducting almost parallel investigations into the death. What starts as a body found in a burnt building, a theme Street had done before and will do again, soon moves in some very interesting directions. The author takes a very small circle of suspects and still manages to pull a surprise (to me) towards the end, as I wasn’t entirely sure what sort of mystery I was reading and hence wasn’t entirely anticipating the beats of the finale. There’s an unexpected thing about the burnt body, although probably because I’ve been reading too much crime fiction for… well, most of my life, but I did think at one point early on this was going to be a retread of The Robthorne Mystery, but without twins – that wasn’t the case at all.
And the denouement, while somewhat confession heavy, is fascinatingly structured. I can’t say much about it, as it would be a massive spoiler, but it does not end in the same way a conventional murder mystery might do. It is both surprising and very satisfying.
I do enjoy the Miles Burton books, where Street could be a little more imaginative with his structure at times. It doesn’t always work – Early Morning Murder springs to mind – but this is a great read.
Good luck finding a copy – currently Abebooks only has a copy of the dustjacket for sale for £80 – but you never know. The four ultra-rate Street-as-Cecil Waye books are heading our way early next year from my good chums Dean Street Press. Maybe Miles Burton and John Rhode could see the light of day once more as well…
And while I don’t do advertising, I thought I’d leave you with the back cover advert from my Crime Club White Circle edition – just because I find it fascinating…