The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

Something wicked…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When the landlord of the sole pub in the village of High Eldersham is found murdered, the local police chief hastens to call in Scotland Yard. Partly this is because he doesn’t have the resources to deal with a murder investigation, but mainly it’s because High Eldersham has a strange reputation. And when Inspector Young of the Yard starts his enquiries he quickly spots something that makes him think that reputation may be well deserved. So, in true Golden Age style, he turns to an amateur friend to help out. Enter Desmond Merrion…

I’ve seen quite a few less than enthusiastic reviews of this one on Goodreads, so went into it with fairly low expectations, but actually I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think the reason for the negative reviews may be simply that it’s not really a mystery novel in the traditional sense – it’s much more of a thriller. Though there is the question of who murdered the landlord, the real bulk of the story is about the mysterious goings-on in the village, and what nefarious crimes they’re being used to cover. In truth, with my twenty-first century eyes, it seemed pretty obvious what the fundamental criminal enterprise was, but I suspect it wouldn’t have been quite so obvious back when the book was first published in 1930. This, of course, is a common difficulty for vintage crime novels – subsequent writers have reused and recycled the plots so often, it’s quite hard to know when they were first original.

But having a good idea of the underlying crime didn’t in any way diminish my liking for the book. The fun is in seeing how it plays out, and in the thrills and adventures provided along the way. Desmond Merrion apparently became a popular recurring character in later books and I can see why – he’s knowledgable without being insufferable, an action man without being Superman, susceptible to love without being a womaniser. He achieved that rare feat for Golden Age characters of not annoying me by his outdated attitudes – he’d work just as well in a modern context, I think. Merrion had served in the war first as a combatant then, after an injury, moving into intelligence work. His servant, Newport, served alongside him, and now works as his butler-come-sidekick. And a jolly good sidekick he is too, with skills of his own, and happily Merrion treats him as an equal – often the patronising way these ex-servicemen sidekicks are portrayed in the Golden Age puts me off the books, like Campion’s Lugg or Wimsey’s Bunter. Newport however is only devoted to his master to an acceptable degree and doesn’t speak with a “comedy” working-class dialect. And he’s perfectly capable of using his own initiative when need be.

Challenge details:
Book: 33
Subject Heading: Serpents in Eden
Publication Year: 1930

The book builds its tension mainly through the dark activities of the villagers, activities rooted in a more superstitious past. There are hints of the supernatural, but the story remains firmly within the rational world, while showing chillingly how bad people can use old traditions to achieve their wicked ends. There are occasional moments of melodrama, some fortunate coincidences, and stock situations like the woman-in-peril, but it’s all done very well and kept me turning pages. And I did like the woman in question – no shrinking miss, the lovely Mavis owns her own speedboat and is the rescuer as often as the rescued. A couple of the scenes are genuinely creepy and Burton manages to get across the real evils that are going on without ever feeling the need to be graphic or voyeuristic – a lesson that I’d be grateful if many a modern writer could learn.

Miles Burton

It’s all a matter of taste, of course, but I think this one deserves more praise than it has received. Martin Edwards lists it under his Serpents of Eden category in his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, and I think that’s a perfect place for it – wickedness and true evil going on underneath the outwardly quiet life of an English village. Edwards tells us too that, although this is only the second book published under this name, Burton also wrote under other pseudonyms, most notably John Rhodes, and was therefore already a practised and successful writer, and I think this shows in the quality of the writing. Good stuff – I shall certainly be looking out for more in this series.

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41 thoughts on “The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

  1. There is definitely something to be said for the ‘village that hides evil deeds’ sort of story, FictionFan. And it sounds as though that setting is done quite well here. And all of the village characters, too… I must admit I like a story where we meet the villagers. I can see why you enjoyed this, even if it was billed as a mystery, but smacks quite a bit of the thriller.

    • He managed to get across very credibly the kind of isolation of some of these old communities before all the technological advances happened. And how that could lead to superstitions that could be exploited by an unscrupulous evil genius! I did enjoy it and was sorry to see it being downrated – it’s not a typical Golden Age mystery, but they don’t all have to be… 😀

  2. Oooh this sounds great! Very much my sort of thing, this! And I’m glad Lugg got a mention – as I started reading your previous sentence he was exactly the fellow that came to mind. I have a friend who swears that Campion is better than Poirot and I do argue with him about it. I know this has nothing to do with your (rather wonderful) review but I felt compelled to share this with you 🙂
    Back to the review – I love these little village mysteries and this sounds brilliantly done. It’s going on the TBR, FF!

    • I’ve tried to like Campion and Allingham but her style just doesn’t do it for me, I’m afraid. And not a patch on our Ms Christie! It’s odd – I’ve come across several authors during this last couple of years that I rate considerably more than some of the ones who are still well-known names. Fake news! Allingham must have been in the pay of the Russians…

      I think you’ll enjoy this one. The problem is, most of these BL books are good!

      • I quite liked the TV version of Campion, but mainly because I’m a Peter Davidson fan. Allingham isn’t a patch on Christie – either in style or storytelling – and I rather think my friend is just desperately trying to be ‘edgy’.
        Argh – I can feel the TBR swelling as we speak… 😉

        • I love Peter Davidson too, but still couldn’t get into the TV series the way I did with the Poirot or Miss Marple ones. There’s an awful lot of snobbery in vintage crime fandom, I think – liking Ms Christie seems to be rather looked down on, whereas liking the ones that quote Latin and philosophers seem to make readers feel they’re intellectually superior… 😉

          • I have a Campion DVD and it comes out when I have a bad cold or something. I find it highly amusing but it is a very budget version of the true greats of Poirot and Marple. It’s very odd how almost all the butlers in it are ex-cons and somehow Lugg knows them all from his time in prison, or occasionally from the army. A very specific type of butler around those parts!
            I hate the GAD snobbery. Christie is clearly the best and trying to be clever and saying she isn’t is pure awkwardness. Latin isn’t even that clever and I wish people would stop making out that it is – it’s just another language. Oh dear – I seem to be ranting. Must be time for a glass of wine… 😀

            • Well, all those butlers are working-class types, so what can you expect? I bet they all read Trotsky in their spare time…
              Haha – it’s always worth having a good rant, especially when you’re right! Keeps the blood pressure under control and is a great excuse for medicinal wine and chocolate. Or perhaps we should have a tisane, in honour of the great man… nah! Pass the wine!

            • Ah, yes – I keep forgetting how awful the working class are. Always trying to revolt…
              Tisane has its place but it’s wine every time when I’m on a rant!

    • I always tend to read the ones who love books I hate or hate books I love just to see what I missed! But this one is great so long as you don’t go into it expecting a traditional mystery… 😀

  3. I read a couple of these back in the day, but I think they were out of print before I started really buying books, and I don’t remember seeing them in second-hand bookshops – always a good sign, it means people thought they were worth a reread.

  4. This does sound rather entertaining and a little different from some of the other mysteries in the BLCC stable. The village setting certainly appeals. As Margot mentions above, there’s a lot to be said for the evil-lurking-behind-the-seemingly-innocuous aspects of these books. Reminds me a little of the title of one of story collections in this series, Serpents in Eden.

    • Yes, it’s definitely got more of the feel of a thriller about it, which is quite fun for a change. Indeed! In fact, Martin Edwards lists it in his Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books in the Serpent in Eden category. This village isn’t as prettily appealing as a Miss Marple village, though, even without the nefarious goings-on!

  5. You are skilled at highlighting the strengths of a book, FF, and I absolutely love that. I have a found a handful of mystery/thriller authors who aren’t graphic. I definitely with there were more. Your review is wonderful, and I’m happy you had a good read!

  6. I would like to read this book while sitting on the chair in the garden on the cover. In my imagination there is a little table just to the right of the chair (out of the picture) with a jug of lemonade on it waiting for me 🙂

  7. One thing about Goodreads reviews that throws me off is that I have to remember the readers may be coming to a certain genre of book or type of story for the first time or maybe even the second or third time, whereas I’m more well-read in that type of story. You’re well read enough in these old detective novels that I would trust your opinion over others. It’s sort of like when I’m looking for new books starring fat women that have a positive message, but everybody loves a book that in the end has the main character losing weight or finding a boyfriend, which means she’s finally allowed to be happy. Other ones like Bridget Jones’s Diary are touted as fat positive, but that’s just because she’s happy in the end. She’s insufferable about her weight and dieting throughout the entire book.

    • Yes, I think it’s partly down to misleading blurb syndrome, or in this case, that the book is a little different to most of the other ones in the British Library Crime Classics series – so people come to it with certain expectations. They did start a separate series for thrillers at one point, but it seems to have withered away. I reckon if this had been blurbed as a thriller rather than a mystery it would have got a more appreciative audience. And I know what you mean about fat books, though I wouldn’t have been so aware of it before you brought the whole subject to my attention. I must admit I never thought of Bridget Jones as fat… what was she, 9st or something? She was just obsessed with being thinner, which is a very different thing…

    • I was disappointed to see it had got some less than enthusiastic reviews but I could see how someone who thought they were picking up a traditional mystery might have felt let down. As a thriller, though, it’s excellent! Enjoy!

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