Source: Review Copy (British Library)
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Red Object (Flowers)
This is my second foray in to Miles Burton’s work, having read Death in the Tunnel (1936) a few weeks ago. In my opinion The Secret of High Eldersham (1930) is a novel which struggles to decide whether it is a thriller or a detective novel. It begins with the murder of retired police constable Samuel Whitehead, now turned public house landlord. Scotland Yard is quickly called in and from the outset there is a strong suggestion that High Eldersham (the village near the pub) is a ‘queer’ and insular place. The inhabitants of this village are shown to have an extreme aversion to strangers and strangers who come to the area don’t stay for long. Unsurprisingly both the reader and Scotland Yard detective, DI Young surmise that there is something more planned behind this and wonder if Whitehead is a victim of it.
Very quickly Young thinks there is a superstitious conspiracy of sorts going on and he decides to call in outside help in the form of an old war time friend, Desmond Merrion, a well off bachelor who during the war worked in the intelligence branch of the Admiralty and in Holmes style he has ‘a living encyclopaedia upon all manner of obscure subjects which the ordinary person knew nothing about.’ He also reminded me of Sayer’s Lord Wimsey as well such as when he arrives at the inquest with ‘an expression which seemed to denote complete boredom. He winked at the Inspector, and took his seat with an air of comical resignation, as though accepting some unwelcome penance.’
Yet, soon into this investigation the plot turns much more into a thriller than a detective novel, which is reinforced by the way Young’s activities become side lined in the middle of the book and the narrative focuses on Merrion’s exploits. These exploits entail Merrion encountering old acquaintances such as Laurence Hollesley who lives in the area and who is besotted with Mavis Owerton, daughter of the local magistrate Sir William Owerton. In true thriller fashion Merrion also falls for Mavis which leads to typical hero rescuing heroine dramatics at the end of the novel. Boats of all kinds feature in this story and are an instrumental part of the plot. These parts of the book come across stylistically and atmospherically as a combination of Wind in the Willows and The Riddle of the Sands (the latter not being a book I enjoyed).
I think this novel started out well and I enjoyed the humorous characterisation of Constable Viney who initially finds Whitehead’s body, as he is not very brave or experienced in police work. But due to the distinct lack of clues surrounding the murder the story does not progress well. It relies more on sinister and peculiar events surrounding the murder, which means that the investigation lacks direction and rather meanders. This affected the pace for me. Moreover, the thriller elements which crop up in the story weren’t successfully done in my opinion as firstly it led to some very trite moments in regards to Merrion and Mavis and it also meant that the mystery surrounding the case doesn’t stay that mysterious. In comparison to Death in the Tunnel there is more characterisation in this book, but unfortunately Burton relies on rather weak character criminal tropes, making the guilty stand out a mile. When the full nature of the conspiracy is revealed at the end of the book it did come across as a bit too fantastical and melodramatic for my taste and the solution to the original murder is rather rushed.
However, Past Offences has also reviewed this book today and seems to have enjoyed it more than me, so click here to see what they think.