Early Morning Poison (1947) by Belton Cobb

“It is a bit important that you shouldn’t say you’re glad she’s dead…”

The Firlong household was a typical one, at least for those well-versed in classic mystery fiction. An eccentric patriarch, his mischevious brother, two sons and their wives, a distant cousin who acts as housekeeper and a maid – surely it was a matter of time before one of them was murdered.

Detective Sergeant Hebden was certain that Janet, the maid, wasn’t guilty. After all, he knew her well, as she was his fiancée, but Superintendent Manning was concerned. Miss Celia was poisoned by someone placing the poison in her morning powders but the lack of fingerprints on the sachets didn’t make sense. The only rationale was that someone had tampered with them – and the only person who could have done was Hebden himself…

Well, Belton Cobb was hardly going to win any points for originality in a tale of a woman poisoned by her morning medicine in a family household, but the sleuthing set-up is a little different for the era. This is the fourteenth mystery by Belton Cobb and rather than featuring Inspector Burmann, this features one of his other series sleuths, namely Superintendent Manning.

Except it doesn’t really, as it is Manning’s sergeant who does all the sleuthing and deducing here. I’m not at all sure how many of Cobb’s titles feature Manning, but the use of a team of Scotland Yard sleuths is a nice set up. The closest example I can think of is Jimmy Waghorn and Hanslet in the John Rhode titles, but they tend to work separately and even then need Dr Priestley to tell them whodunit. Here we have intelligent police officers who, one assumes, are all capable of putting it all together. We do get an early example of a police officer being kicked off the case before being given one last chance to solve the case…

So the characters are well done, and the mystery is well-clued, but the problem with the book is that the central problem of who did what to the powders and when comes across as a very small-scale version of a railway-timetable mystery, and, as often can be the case, suspicion never really goes beyond two or three of the characters.

Entertaining enough, although mostly through the police characters than the mystery itself. And no, there aren’t many cheap copies out there…

2 comments

  1. There seems to be some confusion over how many Manning books Cobb wrote. In the book “Sequels”, published by the Association of Assistant Librarians, it says there are 9; the Fantastic Fiction site says 6, but as one of these is called “Inspector Burmann’s Busiest Day” it seems to have been misclassified; and, amazingly, Cobb doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, so no help there. (The GADetection site doesn’t subcategorise his books.) So, you pays your money, etc.

    The only Manning book I’ve read is “The Secret of Superintendent Manning”, which is quite good.

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    • There is a possibility that the Burmann and Manning stories aren’t completely separate – for example, The Horrible Man In Heron’s Wood features one of Burmann’s team but not Burmann and Double Detection features Sergeant Ross who has his own earlier book (that I haven’t read) that doesn’t feature Burmann – it might feature Manning…

      When I get a moment, I will take a look at the titles I own – I may have stockpiled a few – and see if I can see who is who in those.

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