A Voice Like Velvet by Donald Henderson

Whatever happened to cat-burglars?

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Ernest Bisham is a radio announcer, with the velvet voice of the title making him beloved by the many listeners who, back in 1944, get all their news from the BBC. His picture regularly appearing in the Radio Times (the BBC’s listings magazine) means that he is also recognised by the Great British Public wherever he goes. Which makes his second career as a cat-burglar even more risky! We follow along as he takes ever greater risks and comes ever closer to having his identity uncovered…

This is a crime novel in the sense that Bisham is a criminal, but there’s no mystery to solve and, although there are some tense episodes, it doesn’t sit comfortably in the thriller category either. According to the informative introduction by Martin Edwards, Henderson’s original publishers put it out as “a novel” under the name The Announcer, and it failed to attract much of an audience. It was his American publishers who changed the title and marketed it as crime fiction, cashing in on the success of Henderson’s earlier crime novel, Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper (note to self: acquire!). I understand where both sets of publishers were coming from because, despite the obvious crime element, this is really much more of a character study of Bisham, and a rather humorous look at the oddities of life in the BBC at the time when it was Britain’s sole broadcaster and still finding its feet in a rapidly changing world. But it’s undoubtedly Bisham’s cat-burgling that gives the book its major elements of fun and suspense.

In general, I’ve never been much of a fan of the gentleman thief or indeed of books where the criminal is the hero. But I make an exception for Bisham – he’s an extraordinarily likeable chap and I enjoyed his company very much. He steals for the excitement rather than for monetary gain and has strict rules about only taking from those who can afford the loss and making sure he doesn’t take things of great sentimental value. He’s a bit like one of those birds who steal shiny things just to jazz up their nest a bit. The risk is everything and one gets the impression that for a long time he’s felt his life was so empty he wasn’t risking much.

But recently he has married again – a rather placid middle-aged marriage between two people each of whom were burned in their disastrous first marriages and are somewhat cautious about love as a result. A large part of the story is about this new marriage and whether he and Marjorie, his wife, will grow together or apart as they get to know each other better. It’s beautifully done, I must say – I was rooting for both of them all the way, even while I was laughing indulgently at their inner thoughts. And this marriage is making Ernest rethink his criminal activities, realising that now he wouldn’t be the only one who suffered if he is caught. But he finds it very hard to fight the temptation to do just one more job… or maybe two… and meantime the police are patiently waiting for the man whom the newspapers call the Man In The Mask to make a mistake…

I found this thoroughly enjoyable – one of those books you read with a smile on your face. It’s not at all certain how it will end, so that there is a steady build-up of tension especially once the police become involved. By that stage I was fully on Ernest’s side, and even more so on Marjorie’s – but I was kinda also on the side of the police, because basically I’m a law-abiding sort and the police detective was a nice chap too! Would Henderson be able to get me out of the moral dilemma he’d created for me? Well, you’ll have to read it to find out…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Collins Crime Club.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

16 thoughts on “A Voice Like Velvet by Donald Henderson

  1. This sounds thoroughly enjoyable, FictionFan. I really like the idea of getting a look at BBC radio at a time when it was such a lifeline for people. And Ernest does sound appealing. I don’t usually go for the gentleman burglar as a character, myself, although I’ve read a few books where that sort of character did appeal. But Ernest sounds interesting. And the focus of the book does, too.

    • I always enjoy things set around the early BBC – it’s such a fascinating organisation and such a major part of British culture, even today with all the competition. Yes, I’ve enjoyed a few books with the criminal as the main character but they’re rare – mostly I prefer my hero to be a goodie. But Ernest manages to be a nice mix of goodie and baddie – it’s all in the writing! 😀

  2. That’s nice that the author made you like the police, too. Oftentimes, we are rooting for the bad guy so deeply that we don’t even see the faces of the police officers. Think of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, for example. One thing that I don’t get about criminals, though, is that they think that if they stop their criminal behavior, they won’t be arrested. Does he not know that they can arrest him for all the crimes that he just did yesterday!?

    • Yes, I think that’s when I don’t enjoy them so much – when they kinda glorify the criminal. But Ernest isn’t glorified – he’s just a kinda nice guy with an odd hobby! Ah well, yes, but… well, I can’t explain for spoilers, but yes… that does come into the story… 😀

  3. I like the sound of this book. And it has reminded me that I used to like the TV series (in the 1970s!) ‘Raffles’ with Anthony Valentine in the title role. Looking it up now I see that it was an adaptation of the A. J. Raffles stories by Ernest William Hornung about a gentleman thief in late 18th century London.

    • Ooh, I liked that too – I was seriously in love with Anthony Valentine for a while back then, though mainly from Colditz! I did try reading some of the Raffles stories long ago, but couldn’t get into them – maybe with my new-found love for vintage crime I should try them again. I think you’d enjoy this one… 😀

  4. A straight to the point review. I agree with Margot Kinberg, it is a worthy reading, as the book it is about really seems to be a rare exception.

      • Could be, I can’t say that, but your way to elaborate to the reader sure helps to make the reviews noteworthy. And I agree on ‘glorifying criminals’ being more often a negative, anti-social trait.

    • So far these Collins Crime Club books are proving just as addictively good as the BLCCs – oh dear! I’m doomed to be stuck in the Golden Age for ever!! D’you know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it… 😲

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