The Mysteries of Christopher St John Sprigg: A Mini Ranked List

Having read the final Sprigg novel in my TBR pile, I thought it was time to have another ranked list, the first of 2021. You know how much you like them… This list covers just over 71% of Sprigg’s mysteries, as it does not include The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face (1935) or The Six Queer Things (1937).

So without further ado, let’s begin with last place…

5th Place – Death of an Airman (1934)

This was one of the first books I reviewed during my inaugural year of blogging and I was still getting to grips with my “rating system”. As such I think I might have underrated this one and it wouldn’t be impossible for this title to swap places with the text in 4th position if I re-read it. Nevertheless, it does demonstrate the issues I have had with Sprigg’s other mysteries. It starts well and includes a number of interesting features such as the setting of a flying school and an Australian bishop as an amateur sleuth. However, the bishop is not fully utilised as a character. He passes on his suspicions to the police and then disappears until the end of the book. His reappearance at this stage equally didn’t work well for me, his support in solving the case being somewhat accidental and coincidental. The narrative also had pacing issues for me, and the solution had a tacked on feel to it.

4th Place – Fatality in Fleet Street (1933)

It took a further five years until I read another novel by Sprigg and then I managed to read 3 in one year. I am not the best at pacing myself when it comes to reading a given author! Like other novels by Sprigg, this is an ambitious novel and was his second mystery. Once again, he sets his mystery within an engaging location, this time a newspaper. Yet I found this to be quite a frustrating read due to the sheer amount of obstruction the police face from suspects, witnesses and even Charles Venables, Sprigg’s amateur sleuth. And since the reader is not privy to this withheld information, we too are very much in the dark. Consequently, the mystery develops very slowly, and I felt this negatively impacted the pacing of the narrative. Charles acts high-handedly for good measure and when the solution arrives, its technical brilliance is marred by the journey the reader has taken beforehand.

3rd Place – Death of a Queen (1935)

This novel certainly gets points for originality and unusualness and this was the third novel I read by Sprigg. At that point it was the most complex mystery by him that I had read. It is an impossible crime mystery, though Charles Venables in the story says it won’t be solved by alibis and clues, but through discovering the motive behind the killing. Even though it makes sense for him to do so, given the dangerous setting he is working in, Venables’ decision to play a lone hand in this case makes for an unsatisfactory reading experience. Documents and confessions at the denouement reveal the solution, but before then we have watched Venables not really do a whole lot. The ending is interesting for the way it involves unorthodox justice, but again the narrative for me had significant pacing issues, issues brought out largely through Venables’ approach to detective work. However, there are some enjoyable comical moments in this novel, and I felt this story was an intriguing contribution to the genre, upsetting a lot of pre-conceived notions.

2nd Place – Crime in Kensington (1933)

This was Sprigg’s first novel and I felt it was a strong debut. He establishes the crime at the beginning effectively and the investigation unfolds in a way which gets the reader thinking about certain pieces of information in regards to the different suspects. Sprigg also reveals a talent for deploying red herrings well and the plot contains many entertaining twists and surprises. The plot is trope heavy but Sprigg handles them successfully. We also see from the get-go that Sprigg is good at writing in a humorous vein and at creating engaging characters. Charles Venables keeps things to himself, as he does in the other books mentioned, and he doesn’t say as much as he could do, to the police. I think Sprigg used this as a way of concealing the truth and delaying the unveiling of the solution. However, it is a strategy which is prone to frustrating the reader. Nevertheless, I think in comparison to other books by Sprigg, this weakness is less present in this first book.   

1st Place – The Perfect Alibi (1934)

It is probably less of a surprise that this title obtained first place if you have already read my last post. For me, it is a story truly deserving of the winning position. It ticks a lot of boxes, combining the strengths we see in other mysteries by Sprigg. The mystery plot is engrossingly puzzlingly, the characters are engaging, the humour well-pitched and more importantly Sprigg does not overly-rely on his usual strategy for hiding the solution. Venables is remarkably absent in this book and personally I think the mystery is the all better because of this. Instead of a detective playing a lone hand, we have a series of police and amateur sleuths fairly sharing with the reader what they are doing and what they have found out. The truth in many ways is concealed in plain sight, yet the clues pointing in its direction are sneakily placed so you overlook them. It is a shame that not more of Sprigg’s books achieved this level of reader enjoyment. Perhaps if he had not died prematurely, he might have gone on to write more like this one.

Which book by Sprigg is your favourite/least favourite? Am I the only who gets annoyed with Charles Venables?

12 comments

  1. I know it’s folly to make predictions what your fellow mystery readers will love or hate, because we’re difficult lot, but The Corpse with the Sunburnt Face and The Six Queer Things will likely knock Crime in Kensington and The Perfect Alibi down one or two places on your list. They’re Sprigg’s most unusual, but inspired, pieces of detective fiction and make for an interesting contrast when read back-to-back. Sprigg’s politics bleeds through the story in Corpse, but he had a sense of humor about it and Queer Things is a throwback to the Victorian novel. I think you’ll have a lot to write about once you get to them.

    My personal favorite is Death of a Queen. Not just because it’s a locked room mystery. I also loved the whole world-building aspect of the story.

    Liked by 1 person

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