The peace and quiet of the small village of Fordington is shattered one evening by the sound of a gunshot coming from the house known as Monk’s Barn. By coincidence, PC Burden is passing by and enters the house to find the dead body of the owner, Gilbert Wynter, shot through the head while shaving. Suspicion quickly falls on a servant who has just left Wynter’s service, but Gilbert’s brother and business partner, Austin, is not convinced, so heads to London to enlist the help of the Perrins Detective Agency.
Brother and sister, Christopher and Vivienne Perrins, are well-known and successful detectives, but this case immediately presents problems. How did the killer target their victim when shoot through thick dark curtains? How did the killer make a second victim eat poison hidden inside something that the person didn’t like to eat? And is Austin playing a game with them, hiding his own guilt by hiring detectives that he expects to fail?
A quick history lesson. Cecil Street had a fair few pseudonyms in his time – John Rhode and Miles Burton are well known (although Burton and Rhode being the same person wasn’t generally known in his lifetime) but it was only relatively recently that Tony Medawar, who writes the informative introduction here, unearthed Cecil Waye as a third. OK, not a third, there are a few others on early books, but a third pseudonym for detective fiction. Four books were published between 1931 and 1933, at which point the John Rhode Dr Priestley series was well-established with the tenth book, The Hanging Woman being released in 1931, whereas the Miles Burton Desmond Merrion had only just begun, with The Secret Of High Eldersham appearing in 1930. Is it possible that Street decided to try two different pseudonyms and see which one caught on? I have absolutely no idea. Perhaps he simply realised that writing EIGHTEEN books in three years just wasn’t a pace he could maintain and decided this was the one to go? Anyway, after four books, this series disappeared without trace until very recently. Because those nice folks at Dean Street Press have re-released all four books – this one, The Figure Of Eight, The End Of The Chase and, um, The Prime Minister’s Pencil as ebooks (as cheap as usual) and paperbacks.
It’s an interesting book, initially quite different from Street’s other series, which tend to focus on the police investigation side. The Perrins siblings work seeming in parallel, with Vivienne, in this book at least, doing most of the legwork, scoping out Fordington and the locale, while Chris looks into the business side. Also unlike a lot of Street’s other work, there is a second murder, quite different to the first, a clever but simple trick that is very nicely done. It also feels more like a whodunit than some, although it does become clear to the attentive reader well before it is revealed.
There are also similarities with the Rhode and Burton books. The police aren’t the brightest sparks in the box, taking an age to even vaguely work out where the poison was in the second murder. Also the method of the first murder had Street’s fingerprints all over it. Still not quite clear how the victim was shot in the forehead rather than the back of the head – what sort of dressing table is in front of a window? – but if you don’t think too hard about it, it’s not an issue.
I did like the Perrins characters as sleuths, although I could have done without Vivienne losing the ability to think when she manages to fall in love with one of the suspects. Fair play to her though, this is her case and it is she who solves the case – guess she gets her emotions under control enough to think straight.
All in all, this is a much better book than I expected. When a known author has a part of his canon that has been lost, that usually isn’t a good sign, but this is a good mystery novel, an easy and enjoyable read with some clever ideas in it, despite a murder method that would, let’s face it, never work. Well done to Dean Street Press and Tony for bringing it back to us and I’m looking forward to the other three titles – reviews of those coming soon. Now gentlemen, let’s get to work on the Rhode and Burton titles…
Murder At Monk’s Barn is out now in paperback and ebook.