To make mention of Christmas in the last gloomy days of January is surely one of the biggest faux-pas imaginable, so I shall say little about the pile of festive themed detective novels that, like any self-respecting enthusiast of the genre, I had assembled on the shelf in anticipation of the season. Perhaps unsurprisingly Clifford Witting’s ‘Catt Out Of The Bag’ emerged as my favourite, for Witting has emerged as one of the very finest of those detective fiction writers operating in the immediate pre and post WW2 period. Galileo have done a fine job in unearthing his books, with all five of the Inspector Charlton titles that they have reissued in the past couple of years being essential reads. One rather hopes that they will shortly turn their hand to the remaining books in the series. Galileo has similarly done a fine job of reissuing a couple of Joan Cockin’s deliciously comedic crime capers, and 1947’s ‘Dancing With Death’ was another seasonally themed novel that I very much enjoyed with my sherry and chocolates. Ditto Nicholas Blake’s ‘The Case Of The Abominable Snowman’. The book’s alternative title of ‘The Corpse In The Snowman’ might appear to be a howling spoiler, but this aspect of the mystery is so clearly telegraphed early in the narrative that it really isn’t. It’s a workmanlike mystery elegantly penned, as one might rightly expect of a future Poet Laureate, for as I feel certain anyone interested enough to read this far will know, Blake was the pseudonym for Cecil Day Lewis.
Meanwhile, the dubious honour of being bottom of the list of my seasonal reading in 2022 falls to Carter Dickson, whose ‘The White Priory Murders’ is as dreary an example of John Dickson Carr’s ‘celebrated’ Locked Room mystery shtick as one might be unfortunate enough to stumble on. Nothing very much seems to happen in the book except for a steady stream of bozos expostulating about how the crime might have been carried off, whilst the insufferable Sir Henry Merrivale tells them, and us, how this is all very well, but sadly Not What Happened, before eventually unveiling the truth in a denouement that one feels immensely thankful for simply because it means the ordeal is finally over rather than it being a satisfactory conclusion to an entertaining story. I appreciate that many people love this kind of thing, but please remind me of my feelings on this when the mostly wonderful British Library series reissues another so-called classic by this tiresomely smug writer.
Apologies for falling into the trap of negativity there, but this is what John Dickson Carter Dickson Carr does to me. Makes me forget myself and my Best Intentions for Staying Positive In The Face Of It All. The ridiculously chipper novels of Susan Scarlett (aka Noel Streatfeild), whose ‘Clothes-Pegs’ and ‘Babbacombe’s’ I read recently, do help in chasing away the blues, as do the six detective novels of Molly Thynne. Indeed, Thynne’s 1931 novel ‘The Crime At The Noah’s Ark’ was firmly my second favourite seasonal slice of crime fiction, featuring as it does all the best ingredients for a highly entertaining Christmas romp: Ridiculously heavy snowfall? Check. Posh folks stranded together in a single setting (here it’s a village pub rather than a Country House)? Check. Jewellery theft? Check. Murder? Check. People being Not What They Appear To Be? Check. Fictional novelist as narrator? Check. Aging chess master as astute amateur detective? Erm, ‘check’, as it were. ‘The Crime at Noah’s Ark’ does nothing out of the ordinary, but it presses all the right buttons with the perfect amount of pressure to be thoroughly entertaining. It is the fourth of the six detective novels penned by Thynne between 1928 and 1933 and the first of the three which feature ‘series’ detective, the aforementioned chess master Dr Constantine.
The three Dr Constantine novels are arguably the best of Thynne’s small body of work, building as they do on the character of the chess master and his somewhat Holmesian methods of investigative thinking and reasoning. Of the three books that precede the introduction of Dr Constantine, it is is her first, ‘The Draycott Murder Mystery’ that stands out as being the best. It’s alternative title of ‘The Red Dwarf’ might to more modern eyes suggest a connection to hideously unfunny science fiction but is in fact a nice reference to the stylograph pen that was so popular in the early part of the 20th Century and which provides the key clue on which the solution of the crime hinges. Winston Churchill had two of these pens, apparently; one with red ink and the other with blue, with which I imagine he would doodle the Union flag on his notepads. Incidentally, did the ‘Red Dwarf’ television show also take its name from the pen? Was the space ship called ‘Red Dwarf’ and was it called that because it looked like the pen? Inspired perhaps by youthful endeavours playing with office equipment imagined as spacecraft speeding through the universe… I admit I am sufficiently intrigued to pose the question, yet insufficiently interested as to warrant even a cursory look on the Interwebs for the answer. I digress….
Molly Thynne’s The Red Dwarf’ is a neatly constructed murder mystery that trots along at a fair pace without ever losing its breath from the misuse of over-excitable ‘action’ that some of her contemporaries occasionally suffered from. Some marvellously period notions of social propriety and ‘honour’ thread through the narrative, which is perhaps not unexpected when one realises that Thynne herself was born into the aristocracy. Related on her mother’s side to James McNeil Whistler and the English etcher Sir Francis Seymour Haden, it seems that her early years were spent mixing within the circles of the social and artistic elite in the heady environs of leafy Kensington, where no doubt meetings with the likes of Rudyard Kipling and Henry James left a lasting impression. Yet whilst there is certainly an air of the Upper Classes filtering throughout all of Thynne’s detective novels, and of her Writing What She Knows, there is too a welcome sprinkling of self-awareness and good humour. Early in ‘The Red Dwarf’ she puts her tongue in the cheek of her amateur sleuth and points out that “With a smile at his own childishness, he fell back on the time-honoured method of all detectives of fiction and set to work with a pencil and paper to get his thoughts in order.” Elsewhere she makes a curious use of the old Scots word ‘algey’ to describe things going amiss and one cannot help but wonder how she came across the word. Perhaps in some aristo visit to Scottish lairds or to the Duke of York in Balmoral (her second cousin was one of the Duke of York’s bridesmaids). Perhaps not.
It seems to me that Thynne loses her way somewhat with her second detective novel, 1929’s ‘Murder On The Enriqueta’. Expecting an entertaining ‘closed house’ mystery on the open seas, I was disappointed to find that only the opening scenes are set on board, with everything else then taking place within the social whirl of The London and revolving around (yawn) inheritance, social propriety (again) and the time-honoured mistrust of Foreigners. It feels somewhat like a book that is flailing around trying to decide what genre it wants to belong to. Romance, murder-mystery, thriller: it straddles all of these, and if it never quite settles satisfactorily on one, it nevertheless has a rollicking good time trying. ‘The Case of Adam Braid’ from a year later is much more assured and comfortably positioned as a murder-mystery that seems to take some wry self-aware amusement in balancing the entire mystery on the question of whether the butler did, or did not do it. Well, that and trying to prove that the plucky young lady to whom all the evidence rather worryingly points, is innocent.
As already mentioned, the three novels featuring Dr Constantine are perhaps Thynne’s best, with 1932’s ‘Death In The Dentist’s Chair’ and 1933’s ‘He Dies And Makes No Sign’ following ‘The Crime At The Noah’s Ark’ in being neatly penned, nicely entertaining examples of genre writing. Thynne does seem to have had a penchant for introducing characters who Are Not Who They Appear To Be, which perhaps reflects an increasing sense of mistrust being shown for the machinations of ‘her’ social class. Or perhaps it’s just that Very English Thing of taking any opportunity to put on Fancy Dress and pretending to be someone, or something Other.
Regardless, ‘He Dies And Makes No Sign’ was Thynne’s final foray into the world of fiction, detective or otherwise. She appears to have quite happily withdrawn thereafter to a life of quietude on the High Street of Bovey Tracey in Devon, where she died in 1950 at the age of 68. The six detective novels she left us might not be what one would immediately recommend to anyone dipping a toe into the genre for the first time, but they are assuredly ones that deserve attention from anyone with even a modicum of interest in the inter-war period.