Death by Request (1933) by Romilly and Katherine John

This was Romilly and Katherine’s sole offering to mystery fiction and I came across it in Martin Edwards’ new book The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books (2017). Thankfully it is not too tricky to get a hold of as Hogarth Press reprinted it in the 80s, accompanied with an introduction written by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan; an introduction I feel which raises a number of interesting points, as well as giving tantalising snippets of what is to come in the story itself. Following in the wake of Gladys Mitchell’s The Saltmarsh Murders and Agatha Christie’s The Murder at the Vicarage (1930), this book is narrated by a vicar. Craig and Cadogan felt this choice of narrator ‘enables the authors to turn out a celebration of hocus-pocus locked rooms, sinister actions, striking disclosures and all – while remaining essentially poker faced.’ One section in the introduction which drew my attention in particular was when Craig and Cadogan write that ‘the novel’s most noticeable idiosyncrasy is in the lack of an omniscient investigator; it isn’t exactly sleuthing that uncovers the solution to the Wampish crime. There is no cheating, however, readers anxious to work it out for themselves, are provided with a suitable array of clues: an exploding geyser, some missing pills, a significant bit of string.’ Having now read the story I don’t feel it is all that easy to solve based on the text alone. I myself only really selected the correct guilty party due to a comment in the introduction, a comment I unsurprisingly won’t be mentioning, I hasten to add. So perhaps a general warning may be to read the story first and then go back to the introduction.

Death By Request (1933) centres on a country house party hosted by Matthew Barry and his sister, Susan. The guests include our narrator, the Reverend Colchester, Judith Grant who is the fiancée of Barry’s son, Edward, Lord Charles Malvern, which rumour suggests used to be the former lover of Judith, Phyllis Winter, Colonel Lawrence and Anne Fairfax, a young widow, who apparently has a degree in engineering from Cambridge. The first night of their party is mostly a success, though Judith and Edward seem to have fallen out. However, the following morning brings the reader their corpse, with Lord Malvern found dead of gas poisoning in his bedroom, which was locked from the inside. This death is initially viewed as an accident but thoughts soon stray to suicide and then murder… The two main obvious suspects are a butler with socialist leanings and a personal grudge and Edward, who is suspected of having done the deed due to the rumours about his fiancée. Circumstantial evidence gets particularly damning for Edward, who doesn’t really do himself any favours. Thankfully there is more than one amateur sleuth on the scene (and even a policeman, but we don’t see much of him) and a bundle of other people acting suspiciously. In some ways this novel has quite Victorian content with secret marriages and blackmail and more than woman having a nervous hysterical moment.

Overall Thoughts

Looking back at the story I find it is the relationships between the characters which stick in my mind more than the mystery and its solution, which tries to be outré but doesn’t fully pull it off in a really satisfying way. Love and romantic relationships are presented in a quite a gritty and dark way at times. For instance the butler has got a woman he was seeing pregnant and there is some discussion in the book as to whether they should get married, an issue which becomes involved in the story’s crime due to the suspicions held against him. The vicar, who is strangely very unsympathetic, (for a vicar), writes that: ‘I was in some doubt what view to take of Mr Hatton’s parting advice to the poor girl. It seemed only too likely that Frampton would turn out to be a bad husband; but that might be her just punishment for the unsanctified love she had bestowed on him.’ However this comment by the vicar does exemplify one of the ways I found this a little bit of a harder read at times, as I guess I have a much more sympathetic conception of what a vicar should be like. A number of characters unburden themselves to him yet very often his approach seems wholly inappropriate to the situation and one wonders how he remains so well received in the local village of Wampish (brilliant name by the way). Fragmented, flawed and thwarted relationships abound in this book quite a lot, perhaps giving it a more modern outlook at times. Relationships are complicated, awkward, ambiguous and messy, if not a bit dark at times. One relationship I was quite intrigued with, was Matthew’s feelings toward Lord Malvern, as at several points in the book Matthew’s love, affection and even infatuation for him is mentioned. Yet it’s never really specifically defined. Is this just a platonic friendship or is it something more, for Matthew at least? It would be really interesting to find out which bits each of the authors wrote, as it is intriguing reading this novel for the way women see men and vice versa. As to the ending, although not feeling 100% fair, does provide a darker and more troubling variation of something I’ve come across before. An ending which provides discomfort as well as closure.

I wouldn’t read this book purely for its locked room aspect as it is dealt with fairly lightly. It is by no means a perfect novel, it definitely could have been shortened, but it is certainly an intriguing and unusual read.

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Knife

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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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2 Responses to Death by Request (1933) by Romilly and Katherine John

  1. JFW says:

    I stumbled upon this title when I was scouring a second-hand bookshop recently, and decided to buy it – my copy has the exact same cover as yours! Thanks for the review. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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