The Left Leg (1940) by Alice Tilton

I was very excited when I saw this book on Bev Hankins prize list of books, in a Dell Mapback edition no less! Having won her Follow the Clues Challenge last year, I had a great deal of fun choosing my book prizes and this was one of them. I loved my last Tilton read, so was excited to sample this one, as some Tilton novels are easy to get a hold of, whilst other are a bit more elusive. If you love your mysteries, zany, madcap and hilarious then this is definitely a series to try. Equally if you love Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen, I think you’ll also enjoy Leonidas Witherall, who is the protagonist of the Tilton books.

Before I begin to talk about the plot proper, a little background on Witherall. In this particular book he has independent means and is also the writer of a popular radio series. However in earlier books, (I think), he has acted as a professor at Meredith Academy, which comes up in this book and others, as he often relies on the help of ex-pupils when he gets into scrapes. He hasn’t always been well off as at some point in the series he loses a lot of his money on the stock market and takes up work as book shop cleaner, where of course someone gets bumped off.

Anyways to today’s read. It begins with Leonidas Witherall getting off, red faced, from a bus, after an unfortunate encounter with a ‘predatory blond.’ This earlier than planned departure from the bus means he is stuck in a town named Carnavon, though his mind is soon focusing on the awful realisation that the blond, who is wearing a scarlet coat and wimple, is racing after him. Fortunately for him he dives into a hardware store owned by an ex-Meredith Academy pupil, Lincoln Potter. Yet while Potter goes to get his car, things get even odder and even worse for Witherall. First of all a man in a green satin suit, hat and carrying a harp enters the shop and takes an envelope from the till. Secondly Potter returns to the shop, telling him that the police are looking for a man with Witherall’s description for annoying a lady on the bus and stealing her purse. Things get more awkward when Witherall finds the purse on his person and when Potter accuses him of having stolen the envelope. Witherall as a consequence ends up on the run from more than one party. He manages to make it to his old friend, Marcus Meredith’s house, only to find Marcus dead and his name labelled shoe rubbers by the body. Suffice to say Witherall managed to leave these shoe coverings when he escaped from the bus, so how did they end up here? Witherall also learns something new about his old friend, he wore a prosthetic leg, or rather he used to as that has disappeared. But why? Fearing wrongful arrest, Witherall and some others band together to figure out what is going on and you can take it as read that all the unusual characters, events and moments of mistaken identity all merge into one succinct and believable final narrative.

Overall Thoughts

When discussing the plot lines he writes for his Lieutenant Haseltine radio series and novels, Witherall mentions ‘the viscid, fluctuating tentacles of the octopus of fate’ and I think it fair to say that the same principles operate in Witherall’s life. In fact he says at the end of the book that he will use what has just happened to him as the next Haseltine serial. Yet despite Tilton unleashing a large number of bizarre events at the reader in the story’s setup, which soon begin to spiral outside of Witherall’s control, Tilton herself never loses control of her plot and her writing style is a joy to experience. Hard to pick lots of favourite lines, as there are so many, but one I managed to remember to make a note of was: ‘Perhaps, instead of leaping into this ghastly blaze, he would have been wiser to have remained quietly in the frying pan of the Scarlet Wimpernel. He was even beginning to look back on the Wimpernel and the bus trip as the Good Old Days.’ It goes without saying that this book is tremendous fun, ranging from Potter nicknaming the ‘predatory blond’ as the Scarlet Wimpernel, to Witherall getting roped into running a charity auction and selling one of the organiser’s hats. With such an unusual chain of events, it is a pleasure to see Tilton not just make sense of them, but to also turn things upside down, as events and characters are not what you think they are. It can be said sometimes, that comic crime novels, can be a bit slapdash with their characters, but I think Tilton avoids this, making her characters engaging and believable. Aside from Witherall, another favourite of mine is Mrs Beaton, a master of organisation and running events. Yet she is far from dowdy and dull, as on meeting her Witherall says he heard from someone that she was ‘the one who crossed Tibet on a bicycle, and kidnapped a gang of Chinese bandits.’ I think the only thing which prevented me from awarding a full 5/5 rating to this book was the ending. The solution as to what has been going on is perfectly rational and all works out, but the way Witherall brings about the arrest of the real culprit just didn’t work for me; it went too far into the absurd. Perhaps it was one trick too many. However I wouldn’t let this put anyone off from trying this book or the Witherall series as a whole, as Tilton is a wonderfully entertaining writer, who keeps your attention firmly engaged in trying to figure things out.

Rating: 4.5/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): An author you’ve read before and loved them

See also: The Iron Clew (1947)

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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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10 Responses to The Left Leg (1940) by Alice Tilton

  1. Jeremy Edwards says:

    I recently read all the Witherall books! The madcap situations and slightly kooky characters are very much my kind of thing, as a reader (and writer). I also appreciate how the supporting cast often features women–of various ages–who play against stereotypes by being physically vigorous, mentally sharp and flexible, and game for adventure. Having read all eight, I will opine that, to a certain greater or lesser degree, most of them are essentially the same story, with different details. But I don’t mean that in a bad way: after all, the same could be said of Marx Brothers movies, so it’s a case of my saying “if you like one, you’ll probably like them all.” Still, I found a couple of them to be *especially* good, and this was one of those.

    By the way, I ‘m indebted to you for pointing me to the Constance and Gwenyth Little books, which I’m currently enjoying and which I would classify alongside the Tiltons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah I agree Tilton uses the same formula, but it one which is full of eccentricity and bizarreness that it never comes across feeling too the same. Impressed you’ve tracked down all 8 of the books. Managed to buy two more cheaply today, so I’ll be up to 4 soon. Which other one did you think was especially good? Glad you’re enjoying the Littles, they aren’t as zany as Tilton, but definitely have their own gothic brand of the bizarre.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jeremy Edwards says:

        My other favorite was Cold Steal, according to my notes (they’re already all blurred together in my mind!). I got them through our regional library system; I live in Massachusetts, and the fact that both the author and the protagonist resided in Massachusetts may help explain why the libraries around here have them. (Occasionally, when I get a book through interlibrary loan, it actually comes from the library in Dalton, Mass.–but Witherall’s Dalton appears to be a fictitious Dalton closer to Boston, whereas the real one is at the other end of the state, in the mountains.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Darn it, my two I got today is not that one. I got Cut direct and Beginning with a Bash. I had a feeling you must be in America to have that kind of access to Tilton. Here in the UK it is a little bit harder to track them down and certainly not in the library!

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  2. Bev Hankins says:

    Kate: In case you didn’t know, Alice Tilton is a pseudonym for Phoebe Atwood Taylor. Her other series (under Taylor), featuring Asey Mayo aren’t as comic and madcap as the Witherall books. I like Witherall, but find I have to take him in small batches.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. JFW says:

    I’ve a copy of ‘Iron Clew’, which I purchased after reading your review where you awarded it full marks. 😀 It was almost the book I picked up to read over the Chinese New Year vacation, and completed yesterday evening – but I settled for Martin Porlock’s ‘Mystery at Friar’s Pardon’ instead. Maybe I should pick up ‘Iron Clew’ after finishing the novel I’ve just started this morning.

    It seems like Tilton writes good novels – would you say her puzzles are as good as her narratives? Which would be the Tilton novel you would recommend to me, apart from ‘Iron Clew’? So I can save the best for the last…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well I’ve only read two, so might be a bit tricky to select the best just yet! As Jeremy says if you like one Tilton novel you’re more than likely to like all of them, so it might not be a case of leaving the best to last. Since you have Iron Clew in your possession. you might as well try that one and see whether you like Tilton or not.

      Liked by 1 person

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