And a Bottle of Rum (1949) by Bruce Graeme

This is the last book in the Theodore Terhune series and from comments by fellow fans I was aware that this one was something of a departure for Terhune. As John Norris puts it, in the Moonstone Press reprint introduction, in this story Graeme is ‘combining the conventions of a pursuit thriller with those of a detective novel.’ John goes even further and says: ‘the bulk of And a Bottle of Rum reads like a manic thriller.’ Suffice to say I was very intrigued to see what the mystery was going to be like.

Synopsis

‘On the way home one evening in the Romney Marsh, Bookseller Theodore Terhune and friend Julia are caught in heavy coastal fog. A passing lorry provides some guidance on the narrow country roads, but the night ends with intentional mishap and a dead body. It becomes clear that the constable’s death was not accidental, but what possessed Tom Kitchen to try to stop a lorry singlehandedly at 1am? His widow is frightened; local farms vandalized; his home ransacked. Suspicion centres around the Load of Hay, an ancient Dickensian pub full of unsavoury characters, and Terhune finds the clues may lay in the history of 18th century smuggling in the Romney Marsh.’

Overall Thoughts

The mysteries in this series have hitherto been bibliophiles but the finale steers a bit away from this, with its thriller/police drama. Nevertheless, one of the key appearances of books in this mystery is a policeman’s, the victim’s, library. John Norris writes that:

‘Among the books in the policeman’s rather odd library are several on the history of smuggling in the Dymchurch region of Kent. Readers as knowledgeable as Bruce Graeme may raise their eyebrows at once, for they will certainly recognise the village of Dymchurch as the home of Dr Syn, aka “the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh”, a fictional series character created by Russell Thorndike and the protagonist of several books of crime and adventure inspired by Kent’s infamous history of smuggling.’

Terhune devotes quite some time to trying to unlock the potential clues to be found in the victim’s collection and his searching of the texts allows Graeme to demonstrate his research into smuggling literature. John thinks that he may have even quoted some. Drug smuggling crops up reasonably often in classic crime fiction, but smuggling with the more traditional trappings i.e., communities going down to the beach to take large amounts of cargo from ships, is less common. If my Google search did not lead me astray then Margery Allingham’s work provides some other examples in Blackkerchief Dick (historical novel), Cargo of Eagles and The Minder Readers, sort of, as it is set in a village with a smuggling past. I think the smuggling being set up this way made Graeme’s story more interesting for me. As the plot unfolds Terhune contrasts the smuggling schemes of the area in the 17th century with the modern day one and I was curious to note that he glamorises the earlier exploits, perceiving the smugglers as more noble and gentlemanly.

The lack of nobleness on the part of the modern-day smugglers is very much in evidence for the characters due to their choice of victim, a policeman, (see Clifford Witting’s Murder in Blue for another example) and the way he was killed, mowed down by a lorry. Whilst I can understand his colleagues being very keen to find the people responsible for murdering one of their own, I was surprised by the increased level of shock and horror demonstrated by Theodore and Julia. For example, Julia gets very emotional about what the fate will be of the victim’s widow and children and Graeme writes that: ‘There was a catch in her voice which surprised him; occasions when she was emotionally disturbed were extremely rare; normally she was so annoyingly self-possessed.’ Meanwhile when it comes to Theodore, ‘he could not remember any crime which had shocked him more, both for its meanness and for its brutality.’ This seems surprising given some of the cases he investigated, particularly House with Crooked Walls. Nevertheless, the excitement of sleuthing begins to take over and Terhune compare detective work to writing:

‘In its own way, the thrill of investigating a case of murder was comparable, he had decided, with the writing and selling of a book. to be faced with a blank page one of a new book could be almost as disheartening as the beginning of a new investigation – the frantic groping for the opening paragraphs was no less fatiguing than the anxious hunt for the first clue: the satisfaction of finishing the first two or three vital chapters no less acute than the establishing of a definite trail to follow up: the gradual building-up of plot, atmosphere, characters, no less exciting than the slow building-up of evidence against the unknown criminal: the completion of the final chapter no less soul-satisfying than the knowledge of a duty well done in the bringing to the bar of justice the robber of another man’s precious life.’

So to be honest I was a bit baffled when he reacts surprisingly hard towards the victim’s widow when she asks him to investigate her husband’s death. Despite having had similar thoughts, he pours cold water on her fears he was murdered. Only when she mentions his books does Theodore begin to change his mind. However, he later admits to himself that he just doesn’t like the widow as a person, finds her unappealing, so perhaps that fuelled some of his earlier reluctance to investigate matters.

If there was one thing I was allowed to change about this series, it would be the page time Julia, his on-off love interest. As the series has progressed her time on the page has decreased, which I think is a great pity. Bizarrely in this final tale her more spiky way of dealing of people has significantly mellowed, although Terhune still expects her to bite his head off when he is late meeting up with her.

As I mentioned previously this is a thriller and Graeme keeps the action coming thick and fast. Terhune also sees himself indulging in some different sleuthing practises, including trying to infiltrate a pub community. This seemed like an odd activity to allot Terhune and seemed out of keeping with his usual detective skills. The danger levels for Terhune personally are upped in this narrative and with this we get more melodramatic phrases. I think the writer chooses an interesting perspective for his final showdown, beginning at an operation command centre, with updates coming over the radio, before bringing it all closer to home. This was a well-executed way of structuring the denouement, although it did seem odd that the story ends almost mid-action. I did wonder if Graeme knew this was going to be his last Terhune mystery.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (Moonstone Press)

So here is my final ranking of the Theodore Terhune series:

  1. A Case for Solomon
  2. Seven Clues in Search of a Crime
  3. Work for the Hangman
  4. A Case of Books
  5. Ten Trails to Tyburn
  6. And a Bottle of Rum (This was a tricky one to place but I felt there was less Julia page time and thrillers are not my favourite mystery subgenre. Although I think this has been the most entertaining thriller I have read in a while. However, the longer sections quoting smuggling literature also did not appeal as much).
  7. House with Crooked Walls

8 comments

  1. Thank you for another interesting review.This is a good series and I hope more people will read it, preferably in order.

    As for ratings, I placed House at 5, Trails at 6 and Rum at 7. All down to taste. I am not so keen on smuggling or thrillers and felt that too many of the regulars were missing and especially that Julia should have been more to the fore in this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A splendid review. I just felt it was a shame that such a fascinating series ended ,for me ,on a bit of a low. A good and fair listing of the suggested ranking . I would still suggest that new readers trey these in series order; mainly to see how the various locals ,both old and new, integrate into the stories.

    All benefited from excellent intros from John Norris and Moonstone Press deserve a pat on the back for a fair pricing policy and some suitably quirky covers !

    Liked by 1 person

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