The Golden Age of crime seems replete with authors who published a large number of mysteries and enjoyed some success at the time but are almost forgotten today. A prime example of this is Herbert Adams (1874-1958), who penned well over 50 books in a career which spanned more than the whole of the first half of the 20th Century. Adams tends to be remembered now as an author of golf-themed mysteries but in fact only 8 of his books feature that sport as the background. This rather skewed view of his output may be down to Collins Crime Club proclaiming it was ‘Mr Adams speciality’ (see dustwrapper above) and the fact that he wrote four golf-themed mysteries for that imprint in the heyday of the Golden Age, the 1930’s.
Adams first novel A Virtue Of Necessity was published by Greening & co. in 1899 but he did not publish another book until 1924 when he was around 50 years old. He returned with his first series character Jimmie Haswell, who featured in nine books between then and 1933. At the same time he also produced 8 non-series books – quite an output for a man who hadn’t published anything for a quarter of a century. His books at this time were published by Methuen, a major publisher of thrillers and crime fiction, but in 1934 he moved to the Collins Crime Club imprint and stayed there until 1946. Thus he was with Collins at a time when they were the most celebrated publishers of the Golden Age, which helps to explain the difficulty in finding reasonably priced copies of his books from this era.
After four non-series books with Collins Crime Club, Adams introduced his second series-character Roger Bennion in The Old Jew Mystery in 1936. Bennion is in the urbane amateur-sleuth school of detection and so rather similar to Miles Burton’s Desmond Merrion, and he featured in 28 books – in fact after his debut Adams only published 5 non-series books, two of those under the pseudonym Jonathan Gray. Adams, whilst not well remembered these days, did have his advocates during the Golden Age. Compton MacKenzie, best known for Whisky Galore and The Monarch Of The Glen, was an admirer and often quoted on his dustwrappers and blurbs promoting his books, including this one. Torquemada and Dorothy L. Sayers also wrote positively about The Body In The Bunker and Collins Crime Club reproduced brief quotes from both on the dustwrapper of this book.
Death Off The Fairway was the second Bennion mystery and was published the same year as his introduction in The Old Jew Mystery. Some online sources incorrectly list these books in reverse order. As the title suggests this is one of his mysteries which has a golfing backdrop and it also features what might be called a semi-inverted construction. In the first chapter the reader is shown the criminal’s activities but their identity is not revealed. This makes it slightly different to the inverted tales invented by R Austin Freeman and used to such effectiveness by Frances Iles and Freeman Wills Crofts. However, the publisher’s did emphasize this construction, The Crime Club dustwrapper and book blurb proclaim The reader sees the deed done. The reader sees each cunning step that is to make it appear an unquestionable suicide. But does the reader see the murderer’s one mistake?
Those whose interest in golf is minimal will be pleased to know that here the use of the golfing background is limited to the story’s topography and the occasional anecdote, so the reader unfamiliar with the rules and customs of the game need not be deterred from enjoying the remaining elements of the mystery. This involves the death of a man who has recently returned from many years abroad to settle down in South Devon. Bennion, on the spot when the body is discovered, decides to investigate. When the man’s young niece turns up and Bennion’s best friend and one of the prime suspects fall in love with her, complications ensue. There is some nice detection of stride patterns and the time element of the crime and soon the list of suspects grows, until Bennion is able to apply the final rule that identifies the criminal.
Although Adams is generally regarded as firmly in the cosy school of crime writing, in this book he doesn’t shy away from exploring other themes. The attraction of the sexes is a prominent part of the story – including Bennion’s temptation to engage in an affair with a beautiful married woman. Like a number of writers who were born in the Victorian-age and continued to produce work well into the 20th century, romance is often a theme in his early books. This was something Dorothy L. Sayers often decried in the works of R Austin Freeman, a writer who she admired. Here, the end when it comes is quite satisfying and if Adams does not quite rank with the very best writers of the period, he is certainly one that lovers of the realist school might consider investigating – certainly this reviewer will be seeking further opportunities to do so. Finding many of his early books is quite a challenge and even the British Library doesn’t have all his pre-1935 books. This one comes in an excellent and atmospheric dustwrapper which would surely make any copies out of the budget of all but the wealthiest collector but fortunately facsimiles are available.
Given the increased abundance of reprints of Golden Age crime in recent years, Herbert Adams may be one author who is due a reappraisal and it would good to see a few of his better mysteries available again to lovers of classic crime. I will certainly be happy to expand my collection should a publisher decide to test the waters.
Roger Bennion book #2
Preceded by The Old Jew Mystery
Succeeded by A Single Hair
No record of any modern reprint, ebook or audiobook has been traced by the reviewer.
First Edition Details
Originally published by Collins Crime Club 1936
Orange cloth boards pp 283 + 4p Adverts, 8vo
Title and Author stamped in black on spine. ‘The Crime Club’ stamped in black at bottom.
Front board plain.
Dustwrapper priced at 7/6 net on spine.
Originally published by J. B. Lippincott Company 1936
R E Faust
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