The Platinum Cat (1938) by Miles Burton

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…

11 comments

  1. I am currently in the middle of reading this one myself so I can’t yet comment on the final results but previous efforts have impressed me with Street’s ability to maintain suspense even while having a very limited suspect pool. It is also very interesting to see the thoughts of a member of British military intelligence (Street was a propagandist for MI7) regarding the political situation in the late 1930’s that was both written at the time and done in a forum that probably allowed more freedom to express himself than any official reports.

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  2. I’ve finished this one now and even after your review lead me to be looking for something to come late in the book, like yourself, I was still surprised. One of Burton’s best I think.

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  3. Now I disagree with that opinion Ron. I believe Burton’s best book was definitely ‘Beware your Neighbour’. What’s your take on this Pussy Doctor?

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    • Well, assuming you are talking to me, the PUZZLE Doctor, I haven’t read it, but it doesn’t rate a mention in Curtis Evans’ Masters Of The Humdrum Mystery, so it can’t be that good. This was one of the best I’ve read.

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    • Some of the Street’s I like and enjoy the most are not great as mysteries but still are interesting books. For example no one can pretend that Death On The Board is a good fair play mystery but I thought it an excellent story. The mystery by Rhodes that I like best is Shot At Dawn. I have read less under the Burton name, but so far my choice for best mystery would be The Three Corpse Trick.

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      • Murder M D is the best whodunit, although to be fair, that was never Street’s strength. I agree with Three Corpse Trick as a strong contender as “Best Burton”, along with this one. Death of Mr Gantley is very good too and I’m rather partial to the Merrion-free Death Leaves No Card.

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  4. I agree about Shot at Dawn. Martin gave it a meh review years ago, but Sayers pointed out in her review how it has a brilliant plot development and she’s right. And I loved all the detail about ballistics and tides.

    Beware Your Neighbour I think I did mention in Masters, if briefly. Isn’t this the one with Lottie the incompetent Central European maid? And poison pen letters! That said I can’t remember the actual mystery plot at all let alone whodunit so that’s not a good a sign. A lot of Fifties Burtons run together but this one had some resemblance, in milieu anyway, to Christie’s A Murder Is Announced.

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    • I’ve not read Beware Your Neighbour, but pretty sure I’ve got it somewhere. I’ve a few late-ish Burton titles but always get their titles mixed up, especially the ones involving drowning – Death In Shallow Water, Found Drowned, Death At Low Tide – he did like his water…

      If Burton was ever to be reprinted, I’d be interested to see how he was received as there are some brilliant books there, but there are some real clunkers – Early Morning Murder springs to mind…

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