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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 He achieved that rare feat for Golden Age characters of not annoying me by his outdated attitudes – he’d work just as well in a modern context, I think.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.
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.
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.