Val Gielgud was a crucial figure in the world of radio dramas in the 1930s and 40s. Beginning in 1929 he took up the position of Head of Productions at the BBC for radio dramas; despite having no actual experience in that area. He wrote this book with Holt Marvell; whose real name was Eric Maschwitz. Maschwitz worked for the Radio Times as a deputy editor but was also know for writing hit songs. However, this was not their first collaborative detective novel, having the previous year published Under London (1933). They would write three more mysteries together after Death at Broadcasting House, though Gielgud would go on to write many others by himself. He even collaborated with John Dickson Carr to write two stage plays, which can be found in Crippen & Landru’s 13 to the Gallows (2008), which was edited by Tony Medawar.
Today’s read is a first in the genre to situate a murder live on air at the BBC broadcasting house. The opening of the book sets the scene and sees the runup to the performance of Rodney Fleming’s radio play The Scarlet Highwayman. The narrative then jumps to just after the transmission has finished that evening and the producer, Julian Caird, wonders how it went, having had to leave the Dramatic Control Panel to check up on a possibly malfunctioning light cue. There is one scene he is particularly concerned about, yet his subordinate tells him ‘that scene went considerably better than it ever did at rehearsal. Parsons really got it this time. He ‘died’ like a good ’un. He really did what you told him.’ I think we all know why Sidney Parsons did such a realistic death scene…
Caird and his subordinate go to congratulate the cast, going to the different rooms they were performing in. Yet when they arrive at 7C, the sound proofed room in which Parsons was working in alone, they of course find him dead under the microphone, strangled. Naturally Scotland Yard are called for and Detective Inspector Simon Spears is assigned the case. Many people have strong alibis since they were working with others in a given room, but a certain few do not have such corroboration, with some suspects looking more suspicious than others. Did prima donna actor Leopold Dryden really need a breath of fresh air? And why is he so hostile to DI Spears? Why was the studio attendant not where he was supposed to be?
Given their familiarity with the locale, it is not surprising that Gielgud and Marvell use their setting of the broadcasting house, to good effect. The opening of the book in some ways is more helpful for later readers, as it enables us to visualise what it would have been like there at the time, as well as how it was perceived. Announcers for various shows would wear evening dress, despite no one actually seeing them and Gielgud and Marvell have some characters, waiting to go inside the Queen’s Hall disparage the BBC because of it:
‘Snobbish nonsense! That whole place wants a dam’ good shake-up!’
‘You can’t shake up a set of robots. There’s not a drop of good red blood about the whole. Robots engaged in the retailing of tripe! That’s broadcasting.’
There is further criticism made of radio plays, and this put me in mind of the dedication the book has: ‘Dedicated impenitently by the authors to those critics who persistently deny that the radio plays exists, has existed, or ever can exist.’ So I think the inclusion of such negative viewpoints, which may have been inspired by ones the authors had heard in real life, is used satirically and it is shortly revealed afterwards that the two grumblers were wannabe Communists.
Inside the BBC and our two writers do a good job of explaining the different jobs and equipment used, though not in a dense or boring way. A reader with no knowledge of how radio worked back then will not feel at sea. There is also one really good scene in which Julian Caird is searching the building at night and I loved how the authors made it just as eerie and atmospheric as any gothic mansion stuck out on the moors.
My only criticism as such is that the book did not include a map or floor plan. I think that would have been helpful. My copy of the book, the Black Dagger reprint from 1992, does not contain one, so I don’t know if earlier editions did or not.
The experience of the writers with radio dramas also shows through in how the book is structured, with the plot carrying a radio drama like quality. It is also evident in the structure of individual chapters, with the beginnings invariably containing more description and scene setting, with then a scene between a number of characters to follow. Not that this means the book is static as some chapters do see character movement around London. The chapters are often quite short and at times I felt the narrative voice held a radio narrator/announcer tone.
After the crime has been committed and the police have done their initial investigative work, the focus shifts around a number of different characters from the broadcasting house. There are 2-3 people from the cast of suspects who, to varying degrees, play an amateur sleuth role, though the head of the effects department, Guy Bannister, is the central character in this position. The amateur sleuthing is partly motivated by a lack of confidence in the police and the perception that they will not be able to solve the case as the setting is too niche. This notion is somewhat upended though, as invariably Guy’s ideas have already been considered by the police. Not that this means DI Spears receives no valuable help from witnesses.
For quite a chunk of the narrative I think we see more of what the BBC employees are thinking about the crime and the steps they are taking, than we do of DI Spears. He is more in the background, though a briefing he has with his superior means we get some idea of what he is thinking. However, in the final quarter of the book or so, DI Spears comes more to the forefront of the plot and the amateurs take more of a backstage role.
Due to the choice of setting I think Gielgud and Marvell create a very interesting mystery for the reader to consider. We have sufficient hints of trouble within rehearsals, to show possible motives for Parson’s death – though I don’t think the book over does this aspect of the investigation.
The setting also introduces an unusual form of evidence. The radio play which was being performed live was also going to be re-transmitted for the Empire service and therefore was recorded on to a steel tape. A character refers to it being blattnerphoned. This means that the police can listen to the crime taking place and initially it seems like it can tell them very little, but at the end it is surprising to see what it actually revealed.
In terms of suspects there are two obvious ones, which DI Spears deals with first and then the focus shifts to the remaining possible candidates. A final showdown is planned, and I think this works quite well. I identified the culprit early on; only a slight hunch to begin with, but as the mystery unfolded, I became more convinced. Let’s just say there was a particular piece of information which grabbed my attention.
Dorothy L. Sayers reviewed this title for the Sunday Times on the 4th February 1934. She very much enjoyed it, writing that:
‘No one could help finding this tale enjoyable, first, because it is excellently well-written; secondly, because it has an exciting plot neatly put together; thirdly, because to listen-in on other people’s “shop” is the most entertaining thing in the world, and the authors have made full use of the technical details of the Dramatic Control Panel and the inner organisation of the B. B. C. on staging their drama.’
However, she did have one quibble to make:
‘Except that it could hardly have taken a person 45 seconds to cross a passage and enter a room (a second is a much longer interval than one thinks, and in 45 seconds I can walk down 20 stairs, out through the back door, shutting it after me, and half-way down the garden), I have no fault to find with the mechanism of the plot, and all clues are scrupulously given. This is not caviare, but a light and savoury omelette, cooked to a turn and served piping hot.’
Her attention to detail did make me smile.
I think this book definitely deserves another reprinting, as I don’t think any new editions have appeared since the early 90s and those copies are far and few between. Online at the moment second-hand copies are priced at around £30 and even then there only seems to be 2-3. I was very fortunate in spotting my copy online, a month or so ago, priced by someone who I am guessing didn’t know its value.
However, those who enjoy old films may be interested to know that in 1934 the book was adapted for film and it is possible to get a BFI copy of it for under £10. I have purchased one and I am looking forward to seeing how it compares to the book.