Detective Inspector Arnold of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard had appeared briefly before but in this, the fourth book written by Cecil John Street under the Miles Burton pseudonym, he gets his first opportunity to take centre stage in the mystery. Inspector Robert Young, the first member of the official force to work alongside urbane series sleuth Desmond Merrion, had retired at the end of the previous book The Three Crimes and this leaves the way clear for Arnold, without any assistance from Merrion this time, to aid the local police of the market town of Mardington in investigating the deaths of two errand boys. The first is discovered with his throat cut by the side of the road and Inspector Griffin of the local police is unable to establish whether it is a case of suicide, accident or murder. A broken bottle covered in blood found nearby suggests one of the first two but his missing bicycle suggests murder. Suspicion falls on the boy’s estranged father, but when he proves to have an alibi the enquiry falters and the case is left unresolved.
However, when six months later another errand boy is found under circumstances which point definitely to murder, Griffin seeks assistance from Arnold, keen to prove himself in his first major solo case. With the aid of the police doctor and an expert on the local topography they sift through numerous clues in search of the solution – including the activities of a reclusive religious sect, evidence of chloral poisoning, defibrinated blood (a la R. Austin Freeman’s The Red Thumb Mark) and the fact that the murders took place on the winter and summer solstices. Eventually it is a passage in an old book about a notorious case from central Europe the previous century that provides the touchstone Arnold needs to discover the truth.
This book shows Burton developing the formula that was to be at the heart of so many of his later mysteries. The emphasis on local topography – in this case the rural English village, the endurance of ancient traditions such as witchcraft and secretive religions – which plays a part in later books like Devil’s Reckoning – and the methodical work of the official police are all conveyed well. Although Arnold does not appear until about three quarters of the way through he is intelligent and likeable, qualities which he sometimes fails to display in later books, which play on his irascible character and fractious relationship with Merrion. Although Merrion himself is missing, this is very readable stuff and will be of interest to any devotees of Burton or golden age detective fiction in general. Until the early Burton books are reprinted however, tracking a copy down may prove difficult.
Cecil Street was not identified as the author of the Miles Burton books until after his death in 1964. However, opposite the title page of this mystery he uses a quote about the Polna Murder Case, which occurred in what is now Czechia in 1899 and was loosely used as a basis for this book. Professor Masaryk of Prague University proposed that the man condemned and later imprisoned for the murder was innocent. Street had written a biography of Masaryk (later leader of Czechoslovakia) in 1930, thereby leaving a tantalising clue to Burton’s identity which was never deduced in his lifetime. A 3-hour TV series about the case was produced in Czechia in 2016.
Desmond Merrion / Inspector Arnold #3
Preceded by The Three Crimes
Succeeded by Death Of Mr Gantley
No record of any modern reprint, ebook or audiobook has been traced by the reviewer.
First Edition Details
Originally published by Collins Crime Club 1931
Orange Cloth Boards pp 252 + 4pp adverts, 8vo
Title and Author stamped in black on spine. ‘The Crime Club’ stamped in black at bottom.
Title and Author stamped in black on front.
Dustwrapper priced at 7/6 net on spine.
Originally published by The Crime Club inc. Doubleday, Doran & co.
Priced at $2
R E Faust
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