Richardson’s First Case (1933) by Sir Basil Thompson (1861-1939)

Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)

Richardson's First Case

The Dean Street Press have once again introduced me to a new author, who seems to have led an action packed life, working as a colonial administrator in places such as Tonga, acting as Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard and even working in intelligence according to the excellent introduction by Martin Edwards. Edwards also informs us that Thompson ‘interrogated Mata Hari and Roger Casement…’ The style of the novel definitely reflects Thompson’s own experiences of police work and the case is solved in Richardson’s First Case (1933) by team effort involving an array of different police officers. This team effort is consistent throughout the tale and is intrinsic to the plot, unlike in some of Ngaio Marsh’s novels where although there is a police team, the narrative is predominantly focused on Inspector Alleyn. The most interesting fact for me from this introduction was that one of Thompson’s other novels, The Milliner’s Hat Mystery (1937) inspired an intelligence operation which Ian Fleming was involved in during WW2. It was also nice that the foreword from the original American edition was included and it details Thompson’s thoughts on what makes for successful detective work – Holmes does not fare well!

Richardson’s First Case begins with PC Richardson on point duty in the rain at the end of Baker Street. The narrative style from the very start has a feeling of consciously trying to show readers what being a policeman is actually like. But while Richardson is planning how he will get into CID, a car accident occurs nearby with an old man being killed, who previously had been heard to say he was going for a policeman. Initially the victim’s identity is unknown, but a piece of paper in the old man’s pockets has the name Arthur Harris written on it, along with an address. Richardson follows this name up, finding Harris to be a young rich man, known for speeding. Harris claims to not recognise the man when shown him at the mortuary, but this is revealed to be a lie when the old man’s nephew Herbert Reece turns up at the hospital. Not only does he recognise the body as his uncle, John Catchpool but he also knows that Harris owned his uncle a lot of money, as Catchpool aside from being an antique shop owner and property owner, was also a money lender. Moreover, Catchpool was actually on his way to Harris’ house when he was run over, to either obtain his money or inform Harris’ father.

The following day, because Catchpool’s one and only key to his antique shop is missing, the police and Reece have to break down the door. But on entering the office they find Mrs Catchpool dead with there being no doubt she was murdered. Prior to both the Catchpool deaths, husband and wife, who had separated some time ago, had been rowing, which makes John Catchpool the prime suspect. Perhaps it was a case of murder then suicide or maybe murder and then an accident? However, both these theories are complicated when a witness is said to have seen Mrs Catchpool after the time of Mr Catchpool’s death. Yet if this is the case how did she get into the shop, which Mr Catchpool had locked prior to his death? The investigation is delayed to an extent by the fact that this witness was Mrs Catchpool’s nephew, Lieutenant Sharp and he is currently on a boat in the Mediterranean so the police only have his testimony second hand from his friend Lieutenant Kennedy. While Sharp is making his way back to England, Kennedy seems more than happy to help with the investigation, but is he too keen?

Obviously finding the culprit is important in this case, but another crucial issue is finding out which of the two Catchpools died first, due to how their wills are phrased. If Mrs Catchpool died first then Reece receives everything but if Mr Catchpool died first then it appears Lieutenant Sharp inherits. With many characters having something to gain through lying it takes the police a lot of work to discover the truth, especially when different witnesses disagree over the sightings of Mrs Catchpool. For a time PC Richardson seems to take a backseat in this story as only being a PC, the case is moved on to Inspector Foster who is part of the CID. But due to hard work and a knack for completing onerous tasks speedily it seems as though Richardson may have a chance of speeding up his promotion. In keeping with the fact that this is a police investigation focused story the end of novel centres on finding sufficient evidence to convict the culprit.

This is not a story to be read for its lavish prose or depth of characters. The narrative style is to the point and is plot focused, following the police investigation from start to finish. Usually for me this means a very boring read, especially if that read is by Freeman Wills Crofts and is starring Inspector French. However this is not the case here as this concise style means there is no unnecessary padding and nor is there any long theorising. Thompson gets down to business and tells a good story in my opinion. The ending is a little abrupt though.

SPOILER ALERT – THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH DOES NOT SAY WHO THE KILLER IS, BUT IT MAY GIVE MORE POINTERS THAN YOU WISH)

Although in some ways the choice of killer was logical and much more realistic, I think due to all my other Golden Age reading which likes to surprise you with who the killer is, the choice of killer in this novel seemed to lack a bit of imagination and felt less satisfying. I think also although this character is not especially likeable it does seem like they were a victim of class prejudice from the very beginning and perhaps I don’t like seeing such prejudice vindicated.

SAFE TO RESUME READING

A Final Note

The Dean Street Press edition of this novel also includes the opening chapter of Thompson’s second novel Richardson Scores Again (1934) which looks at a burglary ending in murder. A dairy farm sale leads to a man leaving a large amount of money in his country house and while he is away for the night asks his nephew to come and stay. But when he returns his housekeeper is murdered, his money gone and evidence that his nephew had been there but not anymore. An initial setup which looks promising to me…

Rating: 4.25/5 Despite my qualms about the killer, my rating is primarily based on Thompson’s strong storytelling abilities. Moreover I am also impressed at how Thompson makes his very thorough police investigation interesting and entertaining, a talent I think Crofts lacked.

See also:

Tom Cat at Beneath the Stains of Time has also reviewed this novel here.

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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8 Responses to Richardson’s First Case (1933) by Sir Basil Thompson (1861-1939)

  1. Glad you liked this one, I had recommended the series to DSP, but didn’t have time to write the detailed introduction I wanted with the book in its final stages. See Martin came to the rescue! You were not a great fan of Crofts as I recollect?

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    • haha no I’m not much of a Crofts fan. My favourite Crofts out of the three I have read (The Groote Park Murder, Antidote to Venom and The Hog’s Back Mystery), was Antidote to Venom, for the simple reason that the book was more engaging and less boring because Inspector French didn’t turn up until the last third. Once into the last third though, interest levels rapidly dropped. Crofts for me doesn’t make police work interesting. Thompson in this book did though. Still haven’t figure out how yet. May have to read more of his work to find out and check it’s not a fluke!

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  2. JFW says:

    Thanks for the review, which prompted me to buy books 2 and 3. I’ve just completed 2, ‘Richardson Scores Again’, and I can see the comparison with Crofts/ Inspector French – but more than that the parallel that struck me most would be Punshon/ Bobby Owen. As in, a narrative focusing on police procedural investigations, featuring a young, fresh-faced, intelligent policeman beginning to carve a career for himself. While I enjoyed the story generally, I found the lack of descriptives somewhat strange: barely any character, aside from a flirtatious housewife, received much by way of detailed portrayal. I don’t think I even have a mental picture of Richardson; having said that, at least I don’t have to suffer being told at every conceivable moment how good-looking he is. (*ahem* Bobby Owen)

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    • I hadn’t thought of comparing Richardson to Bobby Owen but I can definitely see the connections and I agree that Richardson is a much more likeable character than Bobby! I’m glad that books 2 and 3 have good story lines but yes I can see from book 1 that Thompson’s writing style is definitely on the sparse and concise side, with a plot focus.

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      • JFW says:

        I think the sparse characterisation of Richardson makes him come across as slightly less indulgent than Owen, who seems at times conscious of his own charms. I haven’t read book 3, and as such cannot comment on its storyline, but I suspect, off the back of your review and rating of book 1, that you would find book 2 a slight step down? The crime wasn’t so much a puzzle to be solved, but an impetus for the investigation procedural. On the whole, in the context of the recent Dean Street Press reprints, I think you would find book 2 a better read than Punshon’s novels, but not quite as strong as Forsythe’s ‘Polo Ground Mystery’.

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      • Thanks for the heads up. What book will you be reading next?

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  3. JFW says:

    I think I’ll try out Julie Wassmer’s novel, which was recently reviewed by Puzzle Doctor; alternatively, I’m keen to try ‘Hotel of Three Roses’, which you recently reviewed. I guess things will get more complicated when JJ resumes blogging and recommending new titles! 🙂 I decided to pick up Basil Thompson partly because of your review, and partly because of Tom Cat’s review.

    Just to add that the book I read before ‘Richardson Scores Again’ was Delano Ames’s ‘Murder Begins at Home’ – which I enjoyed for the banter, the chemistry, and the weird characters.

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