“My actions may be highly suspicious, but they don’t include butlericide!”
Mrs Hurst, the wife of Sergeant Hurst, the resident policeman in Downspring, was surprised when Noakes, the butler from Valley View arrived at her house one evening looking for her husband, because her husband had just left for Valley View itself, having been summoned by the lady of the house to deal with a theft. Noakes leaves, planning to return, but he doesn’t manage to. In fact, he doesn’t even make it to the end of the garden path before dropping dead, smashed on the back of the head.
Inspector Arnold soon arrives and suspicion falls on Reuben Pentecost, a local handyman, as he was seen in the area, but there are plenty of problems with the timing of the crime, and two other visitors to the village who have been acting suspiciously. When one of them is killed in a similar way, it rapidly becomes clear this is more than a simple case of butlericide. With a war on, and the stakes being high, enter a representative of Admiralty Intelligence – Arnold’s old partner in sleuthing, Desmond Merrion.
My final Bodleian trip, and I’ve used this trip to see how favourite authors of mine dealt with the war. John Rhode/Miles Burton included it as a backdrop or plot point a number of times. Looking at the Burton titles of the time, the second half of Death Of Two Brothers is set during the early days of the conflict and doesn’t include Merrion, who is rumoured to be working for Admiralty Intelligence. This is the next book, and Arnold now knows where Merrion is before he stumbles across a coded message sent to by one of the characters. Downspring is situated near an aerodrome, a target of German air-raids and at least two occur during the narrative. One occurs during daylight, and I’m sure the picture of people standing around just watching it – at a sufficiently safe distance – marvelling at the action is something that happened. It’s almost certainly deliberate that the German planes are mostly shot down with little British casualties, as that is what readers will have wanted to read about at the time, but even so, it’s a strong picture that Burton paints, along with the night-time raid during the climax of the story.
There’s also, just for those people who insist on the Humdrum label, some nice bits of character work on display here. The picture painted of Ellen Daintry, for example, a woman in the village living with her nephew, makes her a much more understandable character that she might be. The little gossipy bits between Mrs Hurst and her neighbour, or the bits between Mrs Hurst and all of the investigators are rather lovely too.
Plotwise, there’s a good mystery here and despite it using one from the Big Book Of Cliches, I only twigged to it far too late, with Burton luring me into suspecting who I was supposed to suspect (who was a bad ‘un, just not that bad ‘un). I was completely oblivious to the meaning behind a certain thing (being vague here for spoilers) but while I’m not convinced that it would actually work, it’s a clever idea, nonetheless.
Just to be clear, this is Up The Garden Path by Miles Burton, not Up The Garden Path by John Rhode – yes, he wrote books with the same title under both pseudonyms. Did he forget? Were the book sleuths closing in on who “Miles Burton” was and this was to put them off? Anyone know the answer to this?
Anyway, as with Death Of Two Brothers, this is a great mystery novel that, short of a reprint, you’ll be unlikely to find a copy of. The US title was “Death Visits Downspring” so you might see a copy under that title, but I don’t think it was ever reprinted, so good luck hunting for it!