Given that Leonidas Witherall, was one of my nominated sleuths for the Tuesday Night Bloggers this week, I thought it would be fitting to read his debut madcap adventure. My edition is from The Disappearing Detectives imprint, so had the additional interest of an introduction written by H. R. F. Keating. I liked how this introduction shone a light on another side to Witherall which I had not seen before, though in fairness that is because I had not read this book and it is intriguing how Witherall is initially set up in this first story in comparison to the character he becomes in the later books. What Keating draws out is that there is a ‘core of toughness’ in Witherall and in this first story I think this is much more apparent, as in subsequent tales he becomes more comical and light hearted. Keating also mentions that Melvyn Barnes thought this series to be a ‘prime example of the ‘English’ detective story,’ due to the ‘mixture of crime and farce’ – yet ironically, I don’t think this story supports this idea, which I’ll get into later. But for now I will leave you with a new word which I came across – ‘boondoggle’ – so all my American readers can have a bonus point if they know what this word means without having to look it up.
So what’s it all about? Well the tale begins with Martin Jones being tailed by the police. Recently he was arrested for supposedly stealing $40,000 in bonds from the Anthropological Society’s fund, which he worked for, I say worked for, as even once he was released his employer still fired him. News got around to his lodgings, so he lost them as well. On his uppers he is now being accused of having stolen a lady’s handbag. To stave off the police a little longer he goes into Peter’s Second Hand Bookstore, where he finds his old school teacher, Leonidas Witherall, who is working as a janitor there. He also recognises the new shop’s owner, Dot Peters, who recently inherited it from her uncle. Yet the catch up is truncated by a car crash outside, which is soon followed by Martin discovering a man dead in the shop, bashed on the head. Unfortunately for him it was his old boss, Professor North, so it is not surprising when the police soon arrest him once more. However Witherall, along with a more cautious Dot, decide to uncover the real killer in the next 24 hours. This of course means tackling the other book customers, as well as finding out why North was so keen to track down the 4th volume of The Collected Sermons by Phineas Twitchett. North’s maid and her boyfriend also provide another arm to the sleuthing team, but my favourite member has to be the widow, Agatha Jordan, a society dowager, whose husband used to be a state governor. Gang rivalry also complicates operations and much chaos ensues before the truth finally emerges.
Whilst I think some of the later Witherall novels I have read, have conformed to notions of English comic crime mysteries, this first book doesn’t fit so comfortably. Don’t get me wrong there are plenty of hilarious moments, but for me, this book has the least bizarre and the most naturalistic plot and tone that I have come across in the series so far. For me there is far less artifice in the crimes and if I did not know there were 7 other books in the series, I would have been very concerned for Witherall and whether he would be able to get out of the situation he and the others are plunged into. This is because this tale is much more macabre and dark, with unexpected moments of pathos. Being on the side of right does not give these characters immunity from torture or death, (though thankfully these moments are not graphic). The sense of danger and threat is also more palpable and the villain is that bit nastier, something which is toned down in the later books in my opinion. In some ways this reminds me of Alan Melville’s Death of Anton (1936), which also has unexpected darkness and sadness, amidst much humour.
With this being the first book in the series, understandably I think more is put into the background and personality makeup of Witherall, as in the later books such comments are achieved in a more short hand form. One thing which crops up a lot in this book is Witherall’s motives for getting involved in helping Martin out. For instance he says, ‘I’ve always felt that if I were confronted with a crisis of this sort, I should be able to utilise such powers of reasoning and deduction and concentration as I may have cultivated during forty years of teaching […] teaching is not itself particularly active or invigorating, but it does endow one with a certain amount of resourcefulness.’ Yet Agatha, who knew Witherall when he was a young man and may have been an old flame of his says to Dot: ‘crawl inside his brain, and you’d find that primarily he desires action.’ So it seems a strong urge for amusement, excitement and adventure also fuel Witherall’s actions. This book also sees the introduction of the running joke that Witherall is the spitting image of William Shakespeare and it is quite entertaining when a newspaper, who is reporting the news that Witherall may have been kidnapped or murdered, uses a picture of Shakespeare, finding they have no photo of Witherall. To which Witherall says it is ‘an excellent likeness […] pity they didn’t think to blot out Mr Shakespeare’s Elizabethan ruff.’
Yet Witherall is not the only great character in this book. Dot is an entertaining voice of reason, who futilely tries to restrain the criminal methods being used to investigate for the missing book:
‘She wanted to get Martin Jones off as much as anybody could, and she had no desire to keep clucking around like a distressed hen. She was no spoil sport. She liked adventure as well as the next person. But this wasn’t real. It just wasn’t real. It was an old-fashioned movie without any organ accompaniment […] Racketeers, burglaries, stolen cars, bullets, murders, book thieves! And she had thought that the life of a second hand bookstore proprietress would be as dull and dusty as the second hand books!’
The reference to old movies is an apt one I think, as the mob, fast cars and firearm elements of the plot do conjure up those sorts of images. In fact I would say the atmosphere/milieu is in keeping with Craig Rice’s Malone, Jake and Helene novels, though without the excessive drinking, as when drinks are mentioned the drink of choice seems to be milk.
However the character who definitely steals the limelight away from Witherall at times is Agatha Jordan. She is just so brilliant! A younger Downton Abbey dowager. She has a name which demands respect, obedience and opens doors. It quells mouthy policemen, turning them into apologetic penitents. Her way of speaking is perfectly done, such as when they are all commenting on North’s tendency to write notes in the margins of the books he was reading, regardless of whether they were relevant to the text. To this she says, ‘Elizabeth Morland did that. Her husband read some and divorced her on the spot.’ Yet she too has a love of adventure, as well as some of the best lines in the book and a possible eye on maybe developing things with Witherall. Even in the face of a gangster’s gun she remains in control of herself, though happy to play a part if it will help their cause. Fake crying is not her forte but she creates an impressive performance by thinking of a now-deceased pet. But even here there is a lovely sharpness to her thinking: ‘Agatha sobbed with less enthusiasm. She couldn’t keep on crying for Pogo forever. The little wretch had after all chewed up her best dinner cloth and ruined her prize Persian rug.’
This was not the novel I was perhaps expecting, given my previous Tilton reading, but that did not stop me loving it, showing Witherall in a new light, as well as delivering a first rate mystery adventure. So this is definitely a book I would recommend and thankfully there are a few copies online which are reasonably priced. Get them now whilst stock lasts!
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Academic