Dean Street Press, Feb 01, 2021 pbk £10.99 / eBook £1.89
Perhaps you remember the excitement of a few years ago when we learned, via Geoff Bradley’s magazine CADS: Crime and Detective Stories, that more gold had been discovered in the hinterland of crime fiction. We learned that John Rhode, who also wrote as Miles Burton, had for three years and four titles had a third identity. He had been Cecil Waye (his real name was Cecil Street, hence ‘Rhode’ and ‘Waye’, and had lived near a village named Bruton which in an act of metathesis became ‘Burton’). There was only one problem: Cecil Waye’s titles were so rare as to be impossible to find. We despaired. Thanks now to Dean Street Press we need despair no longer: all four books are in print, each using an introduction by Tony Medawar.
Rhode had his series characters (police officers Hanslet and Waghorn and brain Dr Priestley), as did Burton (Inspector Arnold and gentleman detective Desmond Merrion). Cecil Waye varied his approach slightly, his books revolve around Perrins’s detective agency, run by brother and sister Christopher and Vivienne Perrins. DSP label the covers ‘A “Perrins” Private Investigations Mystery’ and number the books 1 to 4, which is useful, for while each book in this series can be read alone the presence of Christopher and Vivienne or their absence, or their abode, is explained as the books progress.
Vivienne is the prominent detective in Murder at Monk’s Barn, as a local industrialist calls in the agency when the local police suspect that he murdered his brother. This book is also the one most like John Rhode’s other detective stories in the complexity of the murder (the first victim is shot through a curtained window apparently from a vantage point in the air; a later victim is poisoned), though neither Rhode nor Burton tended to emphasise marital difficulties and problems of obtaining grounds for divorce as we find here. It is Vivienne, too, who explains ultimately the elaborate machinations required for the placing of the weapon, though coolly or cruelly it is to the murderer that she reveals how the crime was committed, which should give them the chance to take the easy way out. Unfortunately, again, that is not what happens.
Closing events mean that Vivienne is absent from the second book in the series, The Figure of Eight (ISBN13: 9781913527853). Again this begins with a mysterious death (a bus passenger who has been thought to be asleep for too long) but develops into more of a thriller based around rival struggles in London of the diplomats and their agents of two South American countries. This, though, is far above the standard thriller of the inter-war years and progresses through detection. Three dead men in an upstairs office when only one of them was seen to go in and no one was seen emerging is the nexus of the puzzle. Waye introduces here what will become an element in the later books: never trust the driver of a hire car or taxi.
Becoming curious about the father, Sir Ethelred (a parvenu businessman who is trying to become a major figure in his political party), Christopher starts to track the secretary’s movements in his last days only to find that one of his informants is soon pulled from the Thames, dead. Then the worst happens – except that it is not the worse because Christopher goes along with the police investigation – the Prime Minister is killed in a blast that knocks out his assistant. Everything revolves around the pencils that the Prime Minister and his circle prefer to use – soon we are in a world of ‘H’s and ‘B’s, of round and hexagonal barrels, and where those pencils were obtained and where sharpened and with what.
Dodgy cars and drivers appear, as well as faked escaped attempts, but the master plan is likely to end in tears because the villains use their own properties – even if they are country properties – for their villainous ends and nidos commaculans inmundus habebitur ales (it’s an ill bird that fouls its own nest) as the old saw has it. The secret of the exploding pencil is explained, too, though that requires a suspension of disbelief to accept it, yet the motive for the murder has almost exactly re-occurred in 2021 (financial benefit in government legislation), even while the politics (which supposes two party politics) is another invention (the ‘National’ government of Stanley Baldwin in the 1930s had a tiny opposition, hence power similar or greater to today’s majority party). That the girl who started it is left in the hands of the money-lenders who will strip her of everything seems to be taken for granted. Christopher Perrins ends the series as cynical as any hardboiled detective in Chicago or LA.