Today’s review is for another ultra-obscure author who has been brought back into print by the British Library. Unusually for the period, the book is set in Yorkshire, it also belongs to the niche subgenre of the bibliomystery. Since seeing this title advertised a few months ago, I have been keen to read it.
Martin Edwards in his introduction to the British Library reprint provides some interesting information on the life of the author. For example, William Fryer Harvey (1895-1937) spent time in Australia and New Zealand to recuperate after becoming ill in 1910; an antiquated form of health care which has always intrigued me. Harvey went on to serve in the Friends’ Ambulance unit during WW1, and then as a surgeon-lieutenant in the Royal Navy, where he received the Albert Medal for Lifesaving after being involved in the brave rescue of a seaman; a rescue that damaged his own health.
His debut short story collection was Midnight House and Other Tales (1910), with another collection appearing in 1920, The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby, which is of interest to us today as the eponymous character is the protagonist of The Mysterious Mr Badman. Other short story collections appeared during his lifetime, and even one collection posthumously in the 1950s. Regarding Harvey’s prose style, Martin opines that ‘there is a touch of Poe and a dash of M. R. James, but his writing is distinctive. He trades in murder, mystery, and the supernatural but occasional touches of humour lighten several otherwise disturbing tales.’ In addition, Harvey was a Quaker, which I think is shared by the protagonist of today’s story.
‘Taking a break from his holiday visiting his nephew, Jim, Athelstan Digby agrees to look after the old bookshop of Keldstone so that his hosts, the Lavenders, can attend their cousin’s funeral. On the first day of his tenure, three suspicious characters enquire after a copy of The Life and Times of Mr Badman by John Bunyan. When a copy mysteriously arrives in a bundle of books brought in by a young scamp, and is subsequently stolen, Digby moves to investigate the significance of the book with his nephew, and the two are soon embroiled in a case in which the stakes have risen from antiquarian book-pinching to ruthless murder.’
As Martin Edwards notes, the story has a promising opening line:
‘When at two o’clock on a sultry July afternoon Athelstan Digby undertook to keep an eye on the contents of the old bookshop in Keldstone High Street, he deliberately forgot to mind his own business.’
I think this demonstrates the level of humour the story carries. It is not a full-on comic crime tale in the vein of Alan Melville, Edmund Crispin or Alice Tilton, but is not without its funny lines or moments. After all it is not every day you read a mystery where a holidaying blanket manufacturer is the protagonist!
W. F. Harvey is a dab hand at crafting concise yet interesting descriptions for his characters, even if they do not hold a very big part overall. For example, I very much liked this charming description of the owners of the place Digby is staying at:
‘Mr and Mrs Lavender set off a little after two. From his comfortable arm-chair in the shop Athelstan Digby watched them go down the High Street arm in arm, like two oddly assorted volumes from the shelves. Daniel Lavender, leather bound, fat and stumpy; Mrs Lavender; cloth bound, tall and thin.’
It made me wonder what sort of book I would be! Hopefully nothing too dog-eared…
The author’s humour is also at play in some of his character descriptions, with the example below being one of my favourites:
‘His nose was long, his chin receding, and the eyes behind the rimless glasses were a light blue. Mr Olaf Wake’s tie and stockings were also blue and of a similar shade; but Mr Digby attributed this to coincidence. It was inconceivable to him that a well-known economist could waste his time on anything so trivial as a colour scheme.’
I think this example is good at demonstrating how an effective description says something about the person doing the describing, as well as the person being described.
Despite this focus on descriptions in my review, the narrative itself holds a good pace and chapter one sets everything up nicely. When the first corpse appears, it is relatively unexpected, as it is not something you readily anticipate as it is sprung early upon the reader. The trajectory of the mystery, because it is not a conventional, nor traditional, whodunnit, feels more fluid. The letter which is the root of all the drama in the novel has an interesting backstory, yet I was surprised how quickly the central characters pieced it together. This seemed unusual to me, as often in mysteries of this sort, figuring out the backstory would be a big part of the plot. Instead in The Mysterious Mr Bad Man, the plot is centred on the characters deciding how to respond to this backstory and then how to thwart other people’s plans for the letter. The suspicious death at the start of the book becomes of less importance, in some ways, although it is solved during the course of the book. You could regard this mystery as a form of treasure hunt, as the characters seek to locate the missing letter. Mysteries of this type can lack staying power, especially in adult mysteries, but I felt this was not the case here.
SPOILER PARAGRAPHS BELOW
Whilst this section does not reveal who the guilty party is, I thought it still mentions a lot of details about the letter’s backstory and therefore might spoil the book for some who want to know as little as possible about the plot before going in. So read on at your own risk!
Digby and his nephew essentially go above and beyond to ensure that the Home Secretary’s letter is not published in the newspapers or used to force him to resign and stop a change in foreign policy. The letter proves that a prisoner on trial recently found guilty of murder is the Home Secretary’s black sheep son from his first marriage. He used his position as Home Secretary to get the hanging sentence commuted. It might just be me, but when this part of the story comes together, I thought how odd this would seem today, given the political climate, for two private individuals to go out of their way to spare a Home Secretary from blackmail and political scandal, due to him using his position/job to alter a legal decision. This was my first inkling that Digby might share some of his creator’s religious background, as whilst Digby disagrees with the Home Secretary abusing his power, he can understand the motivation and he does also disagree with hanging, which was the alternative for the prisoner. It is hard to say if there is any social class bias in Digby’s actions, but I would say he is probably governed more by his own integrity.
SPOILER SECTION ENDED
The title for this story is obviously a Bunyan allusion, given the role of Bunyan’s The Life and Death of Mr Badman (1680) in the text, but I also felt the title was sort of ironic, as crime novels invariably have a “mysterious badman” and in this novel I would say there is more than one “Mr Badman” in the story.
One piece of social history which interested me in The Mysterious Mr Badman was a new-to-me cake which is called turf cake. This is a comestible which is linked to the Yorkshire setting of the novel and for more information on what this cake is made of click the link: http://www.foodsofengland.co.uk/turfcakes.htm
Overall, I would say this is a thriller-like drama of a mystery, as it is a story in which characters respond to changing circumstances. Nevertheless, characters consistently follow up leads properly, they use clues from crime scenes and theorise accordingly. The result is an interesting plot I would say, as the central characters are good at finding out information, even if they are poor at avoiding villainous traps. What do we all know about answering late night summons for help?
The peril in this story resolves quite easily however, which I think belies the light-hearted nature of the piece. It very much has a tea on the lawn kind of ending.
Source: Review Copy (British Library)