On the summit of Westonbury, a group of archaeologists are excavating a set of Roman remains when the quiet is shattered by an explosion. It seems two young local boys, playing near the dig, found a discarded Mills Bomb and set it off, killing young Oswald Hemmick – his friend Michael escaped the blast.
As Sir Aylmer Hemmick looks around for a new heir, Desmond Merrion, holidaying in the area, is suspicious that this was more than just an accident, a suspicion apparently confirmed when a second Mills Bomb explosion takes the life of a local shepherd. Accidents can’t happen the same way twice, surely?
What better way to start the year by doing that annoying thing that I do by reviewing a book that you currently have a cat in hell’s chance of finding a copy of. This is a late Miles Burton title – there are only ten or so after this – and while it features his sleuth Desmond Merrion, it doesn’t feature his “sidekick” Inspector Arnold. Fair enough, Arnold gets his own book in the series in Death Leaves No Card. I’ve said before that I prefer the late Burton titles to the later ones written as John Rhode. It might well be that Rhode all but abandons Dr Priestley in those titles, relegating to a mid-book consultation and the denouement, leaving the investigation to Jimmy Waghorn, who isn’t that distinctive a character. Meanwhile in the Burton books, Merrion remains at the centre of things, and while he’s a little bland as well, as he’s also doing the deductions, it’s more involving.
The matter of Sir Aylmer’s heir has a good few twists and turns, although none of them ever come as much of a surprise, it keeps the plot moving forward, and the multiple deaths, plus the subplot about a horse, keep things fresh as well. I was a little concerned that the “accidents” would end up being accidents – Street does that in at least one book, and it’s very unsatisfying – but this is a case of murder, good and proper. Well, improper, as it does involve the murder of a ten-year-old after all.
The murderer… well, there are two threads to their identity, and I think either can be guessed, but tying them together came out of nowhere. It does make sense, though, and the whole tale of Sir Aylmer and his inheritance may come as a surprise to those who assume that Street/Rhode/Burton was a very dry writer. There is a sense that he is the last of a dying breed of character who prevailed in crime fiction between the wars, that of the hereditary peer ensconced in his stately home, with his desperation to raise Oswald to take his place – it’s not just someone to inherit his money, but someone to take his place in the world when his dies.
All in all, I rather enjoyed this one, a much stronger book than one might expect from one so late in John Street’s output. Of course, finding a copy is not easy – there’s only one copy for sale, for close to £100, no DJ, possibly rebound, according to Bookfinder. Someone asked the other day about why some of us bloggers review books that the majority of you readers can’t get their hands on, but the rationale, in my eyes, is threefold. First, this blog is a record of my personal reading, and, well, I’ve read it. Secondly, there is now a little information on the internet about the content of this book – I can’t find any other articles about it. And thirdly, speaking favourably about such a title might bring it to the attention of the right someone. And you never know, if that someone was inclined to reprint the Miles Burton titles, that would be more than welcome – with the John Street/Cecil Waye books on the way, anything is possible…