Frome is one of Zenith Jones Brown’s pennames. In addition, Brown wrote under the name of Leslie Ford, which is probably her best-known pseudonym, but she also published some books as Brenda Conrad. Like some writers of the time, such as John Haslette Vahey, I think the different pennames may have been used for publishing different types of mysteries. Today’s read comes from Frome’s Mr Pinkerton series and was originally published under the title The By-Pass Murder. A number of the later Pinkerton stories also seem to have been printed with two titles; one of which always shoehorning in the series character.
The book commences with a hold up on a car going through the village of Colnbrook. The gunman demands the elderly passenger, George Colton, to get out of the car and drop his satchel. His wife, seeing an opportune moment, reaches for a gun in their car and shoots. Yet all this achieves is return fire which leaves George dead, and the satchel gone. Inside the satchel had been some diamonds belonging to George’s friend, Mrs Royce. They were being taken away to be evaluated. Scotland Yard are called into investigate and Inspector Bull is put in charge and he soon has his sights on the various people who knew about the diamonds. Was the chauffeur in cahoots with the gunman? Or was it Louise, the much younger wife? Her marriage is quickly revealed to not have been a happy one. Why did she decide to fire the gun?
Frome provides the reader with an interesting variety of motives for the holdup, from insurance fraud and a desire to obtain an inheritance, to jealousy and affairs. The investigation equally develops a number of avenues to be explored, including the disappearance of an employee of Colton’s.
The first chapter plays out the holdup, but then Frome changes tack in her next chapter as she introduces Inspector Bull, from the perspective of his domestic life. In moments like these we get some gentle humour, such as when Frome writes that Bull ‘always wore cinnamon brown overcoats. His wife’s tactful efforts to make him go in for contrasting instead of harmonising shades met a placid but adamant resistance.’ Interestingly Bull is not set up as a poor policeman, yet everyone is quite surprised that he solves cases as well as he does. More than once it is said he is a bit too trusting, and the type of man who resists the idea that middle class women can be murderers. I also found his sympathies to be easily swayed. When he is considering Louise as a possible killer, he feels sympathetic towards her when the maid reveals that George Colton had once locked his wife and daughter in their rooms and fed them on bread and tea for a day. Yet in the very next sentence he is siding in his thoughts with George when it turns out Louise does not put the lid back on the toothpaste. Clearly, he feels very strongly on the issue…
At the start of the book Inspector Bull invites his previous landlord and friend, Mr Pinkerton to stay for a week, as Bull’s wife is on holiday. Frome describes Mr Pinkerton as:
‘a grey mouse-like little Welshman who on one memorable occasion had emerged from his chrysalis and for a few moments had become the gaily coloured butterfly, so to speak, of avenging justice.’
From what I can gleam from the narrative, Mr Pinkerton on a previous occasion saved the life of the woman who became Inspector Bull’s wife. However, if you are expecting Mr Pinkerton to be at the centre of everything and to be highly active in this current case, then your expectations are going to remain unfulfilled.
Despite staying with the inspector, he is only once invited to accompany him anywhere and equally they only once have a proper talk about the case. Consequently, Mr Pinkerton acts more like a veritable Zebedee, who pops up at the scenes of important discoveries, having divined somehow that something dramatic was about to occur there. Even when he only has the newspaper details of the case, he seems to be miles ahead of Bull in theorising about the crime. Given his limited page time the reader does not get a strong sense of who he is, though I would say he comes across as rather polite and deferential.
There is nothing wrong with the final solution. In fact it has a clever piece of misdirection, but overall the ending has very little impact. I didn’t feel like we ever got particularly close to the characters, which I think added to this problem, and on the whole, despite the odd moment here and there, the prose style did not hold my interest. Unfortunately, for me, the book came across as rather dull, so I am not sure this is a series I am particularly keen to return to.