This is one of the books I was most anticipating this year, especially having thoroughly enjoyed Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper (1944), which Harper Collins have also reprinted. Like this other story, Henderson once more predominately delivers his story from the criminal’s point of view and it is an inverted mystery. I can do no better than include the synopsis given by Harper Collins as they really do get to the heart of the story in a nutshell:
‘By day Ernest Bisham is a velvet-voiced announcer for the BBC; the whole country recognises the sound of his meticulous pronouncements. By night, however, Mr Bisham is a cat-burglar, careless about his loot, but revelling in the danger and excitement of his running contest with Scotland Yard. But as he gets away with more and more daring escapades, there will come a time when he goes too far…’
It is such a shame that this book has been forgotten for so long, as I thoroughly enjoyed it. Martin Edwards in his introduction to the reprint suggests that poor marketing at the time may have contributed to its obscurity. Despite receiving a lot of positive reviews, it only had a 3000 copy print run. The original uninspiring title, The Announcer, combined with it not being described as a crime novel or by the writer of Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper, probably didn’t help matters either.
Random House, who published the book in 1946 in the USA, aligned the tale as being part of the gentlemen crooks tradition, as typified by Raffles. Yet I think the protagonist, Bisham, outgrows this mould, or at the very least doesn’t quite fit it comfortably. He is no dashing, rogue-ish, Wimsey-gone-criminal, thief. He is in fact an unfit, middle class, middle aged, over weight radio announcer. Perhaps it is this incongruity which makes him so appealing as a character. There is no guarantee he will get away with what he is doing, yet you still want him to avoid getting caught, despite the dubiousness of what he is doing. The Kirkus Review at the time of the US publication said the novel ‘combines a psychopathic study, with [an] effective hare and hounds adventure.’ When I think of the word psychopath, I’m thinking of someone like Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, not Ernest Bisham who never misses doing one of his radio announcements and puts up with his sister. You would not feel uncomfortable or afraid around Bisham. There is no hint of maladjustment socially or relationally, though his marriage does have the odd rough patch. Once hitting upon radio work he is able to keep a steady job and he has more than enough money. I guess the one element of Bisham’s crimes which corresponds to psychopathy are the motivations behind his crimes. A need for danger, a form of addiction, though it is not an uncontrollable one.
The comedy of this one is not as dark as it is in Henderson’s other novel. He has a great deal of fun around class consciousness, as his wife Marjorie and his sister Bess are very focused on what is respectable and proper behaviour for a BBC announcer and his relatives. A brilliant example can be found at the start of the story when the narrative looks at when they hear about his promotion:
‘They joined hands and did an excited and rather ungainly sort of dance in the lounge […] only stopping because one of the servants happened to come in. You could not dance with BBC announcers in front of the servants, however closely connected.’
Bess’ moments in the novel are guaranteed to memorable. She is an older spinster sister, who is an ATS sergeant. Whilst she has holds very selective snobbery when it comes to her family, she otherwise holds a range of opposing views, ever keen to promote a cause. Though this does make her unpopular with the Bisham servants. Then again she does think that: ‘no young person ought to take a servant’s job in these days unless they were pregnant. She saw women down coal mines, even, and applauded the Russian women fighting at the front.’ A final comment on family is that I think Henderson actually makes some quite ahead of his time hints about his characters’ pasts: Ernest only discovers he has a sister after his father’s death, his father himself was taciturn to the point of ridiculousness and there was definitely something odd between Marjorie and her father. These threads of course are tantalising left unanswered, but they add depth to this character study nevertheless.
The milieu of the radio department at the BBC is effectively brought to life and added an extra interesting dimension to the piece. The novel often contrasts what the public thought the place was like, with what it really was like, providing another gentle strain of comedy. The fact Henderson himself worked there full time and then freelance no doubt aided him in this.
Although it is an inverted mystery, the reader has no idea how the story will end. It could go either way and the way it does go is very satisfying and hugely enjoyable. It’s an unusual book, harking back to the late Victorians/Edwardians, being of its time and then looking ahead to future crime writing styles. It’s a wonderful mixture and I would strongly recommend it. Even better news is that you don’t have long to wait as it is being released in September.
This edition also includes the short story ‘The Alarm Bell’ (1945), which first appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.
Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)