Subject: Murder (1945) by Clifford Witting

This is my seventh read by Witting and the military setting of this mystery is based on the author’s ‘personal experience as a bombardier in an anti-aircraft detachment.’ In 1964 this book was adapted for the first series of Detective. It was episode 10 and it was aired on the 1st June. Witting adapted it himself and Mark Eden starred as Bombardier Peter Bradfield and Basil Dignam appeared as Inspector Charlton. Last year I wrote more about the TV series as a whole, here.

Galileo Publishing cover for Subject: Murder by Clifford Witting. It depicts two soldiers using an anti-aircraft gun outdoors in a rural area.


‘The dispatch of Battery-Sergeant-major William George “Cruel” Yule had elicited few tears, as odious and manipulative to the last, he’d made life hell for those he oversaw, especially ones who’d crossed him. But who out of many, had actually bumped off the Sergeant-major? Scotland Yard must find out who-did-him-in. Inspector Charlton takes the lead, aided by narrator of this tale and former bloodhound of the law, Peter Bradfield, now a bombardier in a Light Anti-Aircraft Battery. Their interrogation of the assembled army personnel uncovers dark and unsavoury deeds, tyrannical behaviour and shenanigans […] There is a plentiful supply of clues and red herrings in this fascinating first-rate detective story which also depicts the trials, tribulations and ugliness of WWII army life.’

Overall Thoughts

The story is narrated by ‘Peter Bradfield, the detective constable colleague of series character Inspector Charlton […] We follow him from basic training in Wales to his various transfers to other posts eventually landing him in an anti-aircraft detachment between the villages of Etchworth and Sheep, and coincidentally just outside of Lulverton where he and Charlton are based as policemen.’ Peter Bradfield mentions his connection to Charlton in the opening chapter. He even copies out a paragraph from a previously chronicled case, which describes himself (Witting does like to indulge in metafiction at times). Annoyingly though I have not tracked down which previous mysteryb the paragraph comes from. More eagle-eyed Witting fans might be able to help me.

In the paragraph above I quoted from the alternative blurb, which can be found on websites such as Amazon, as I thought it neatly outlined the structure of the mystery. It is not a story which stays in the same place, not until well into the plot. This is a mystery novel which dedicates two-thirds of the book to the run up to the murder, with Bradfield’s narrative commencing 16 months prior to the killing of Yule. This type of structure does not appeal to all, with some dead keen on it and others who wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole. I think I am somewhere in the middle, in that I do enjoy them when they are written well. If you create a long run up to your murder, then you have to make sure you maintain reader interest before that point and that the run up is relevant to the crime and not just page padding. Fortunately, I can say that Witting meets this criteria, with the run up including big and small events which are crucial to understanding why Yule might have been killed. Bradfield urges us to pay attention when near the beginning of the tale he writes that:

‘Now I can go on to describe the day – sixteen months before the death of Sergeant-major Yule – that I joined the armed forces of the Crown – and let it be said now, before this book is tossed aside as “just another rookie’s war diary,” that these first chapters are not be random military recollections, but the opening scenes of a comedy-drama that ended in tragedy – and very nearly in something far worse.’

I thought there was a hint of Christianna Brand here. Witting develops a character rich mystery, but woe betide if you don’t pick up on the important details which are woven into the narrative. Some are more easy to spot such as the differing personalities of Peter Bradfield and Johnny Fieldhouse, as these differences from the get-go form a chain which places Johnny at the top of the suspects list for Yule’s death. However, some details are more subtle, so readers are warned to keep their eyes peeled!

Still from the TV adaptation depicting Peter Bradfield and Inspector Charlton talking to each other.

As Bradfield makes his way to his first place of training, he considers the reasons why he anticipates joining the army won’t be much fun, and I felt these reasons made it sound like he was going away to boarding school for the first time:

‘No, it was the regularity of it that frightened me – the way they had in the Army of ordering your life through every moment of the day […] It was going to be so dull at first, learning new things…. Tedious things like arms-drill and square-bashing […] Then there was the business of settling down in unfamiliar surrounding and an uncomfortable way of life …. Making new friends….’

This atmosphere can also be found later in the story, with the nabbing of the bottom bunks and the chaos of everyone’s kit getting mixed up giving the sleeping huts the appearance of being like dormitories. Another example can be found when Bradfield is returning from some leave, and he writes that: ‘Our twelve days’ leave was over. A good many other XYZ men had come down by the same train, and our noisy greetings on the platform reminded me of the first day back at school after the holidays.’

However, you would be wrong to assume that this is a cosy or full-on comic mystery. The opening sentence of Witting’s novel may remind us of how we rarely kill the people we hate:

‘Most of us at Battery headquarters had certainly considered the possibility on more than one occasion, yet, for all that, it came as rather a shock when somebody did murder the Sergeant-major.’

But, despite this, the author’s choice of military setting provides a new fertile ground for producing a variant of the unpleasant and unpopular victim. This is not a fast book, yet this does not equate to it being a poor read. It may take until page 198 (out of 308) for Yule to be murdered, but you will find it hard to disagree, after reading the events running up to this event, with the fact that Yule is one of the most awful victims the genre has ever penned. As a victim, he does not get the biggest amount of page time, but when he does make an appearance, he has impact – selfish and vindictive destruction follow in his wake. He probably makes Agatha Christie’s Mrs Boynton (see Appointment with Death) seem cuddly and misunderstood! A comment I do not make lightly.

Yule’s cruelty has a devastating effect on animals as well as humans, but one of the worst features of his appalling behaviour is how underhand and undercover it is. Bradfield mentions this on the first page of the novel:

‘Not that his was the straightforward brutality, the healthy gall of the Army bull. It was more of the cat-and-mouse type. He liked to see others in pain or distress, particularly if he himself had been the agent of their sufferings.’

Perhaps because it is a war set mystery, the crimes, legal and moral, committed by Yule are darker. Despite the boarding school vibe the narrative gives at times, Witting does not present army life as a school holiday camp. The unusual murder method chosen also reflects this darkness and the loathing held towards Yule. Furthermore, the method incorporates the military camp life and resources, as well as those found in the local vicinity, which make this unusual modus operandi feel authentic to the mystery it is deployed in.

One of the many strengths of this mystery is the picture of military life that it recreates. Whilst writers can achieve wonders with extensive research, there is just something different about settings which have been written by those who have experienced them. I have already mentioned how these details feed into the murder mystery plot, but there are some other interesting issues raised, such as how different personalities reacted to the military routine and loss of freedom. The narrative also highlights how being at war aids those wishing to commit bigamy, due to the geographical dislocation people underwent. This seemed to me to be a more significant theme than in other contemporary mysteries. It comes up directly in soldiers’ conversation, but it also occurs indirectly at times such as in this snippet of dialogue:

“Poetry?” I asked him.

He raised his eyes from the page and looked at me dubiously, like a man invited to admit that he is running two homes.

Interestingly, it is not just men behaving badly in this respect, as in this story soldiers arriving in a new area have to take local women at their word about their singleness. More than one soldier falls foul of this situation, when it turns out that the woman they have been dating is in fact married. I felt this reversed the situation and complicated relationships do provide motive for murder later in the book. Nevertheless, Witting’s depiction of army life does include some passages of dark humour, such as this one:

‘There 273 Jones, S., who was borne off in an ambulance with a dangerous appendix. Purists will instantly whinny that ambulances do not normally suffer from dangerous appendixes. In this instance, neither did 273 Jones, S. It was 148 Jones, S. who should have been whisked away.’

I think examples like this highlight Witting’s pleasing prose style.

Once Yule bites the dust, I think Witting does a good job of enabling Inspector Charlton to learn what motives there are for killing him, without there being too much repetition of information for the reader. Instead, Charlton’s interviews with relevant military personnel are much more alibi focused. To my surprise Peter Bradfield is less involved in the investigation than I thought he would be, but his appearances work well nonetheless. With the first two thirds of the mystery dealing with motive, the final third arguably offers more of an alibi breaking mystery (to an extent), as well as a locked room mystery of sorts, involving a locked hut. The solution to this is solved off the page which is disappointing, but the more mechanically minded among you might have some ideas when the hut security is described by Bradfield. The weakest part of the story is not the nature of the solution (as to who murdered Yule), but how this evidence is uncovered. In comparison to the rest of the narrative it felt like it was awkwardly forced in. I think it needed to be embedded more convincingly.

Original dust jacket cover for Subject: Murder by Clifford Witting. It is a black cover with title in top left corner and author's name in bottom right. Diagonally across the page is a rope with a military insignia caught in the middle of it.

I have been in two minds as to how arbitrary the choice of killer is, as I think this feeling of arbitrariness is exacerbated by the truncated nature of the denouement, which whisks the reader off to a different finale. If we had paused longer with the aftermath of the revelation, and how the other characters felt about it, then I think this feeling would have been reduced. After all, it is likely that the reader will have more sympathy for the killer than the murder victim in this context. But again, because I do like a good spot of overthinking, I wondered if the military context influenced the ending’s matter of fact and understated attitude to the solution. There is some interesting moral ambiguity raised by the solution, which I also think could have been exploited more.

However, overall, this was a very enjoyable read, taking a well-earned spot in my top 3 Witting reads, (the other two being Catt Out of the Bag (1939) and Murder in Blue (1937)). You would think that the military setting would make it a niche read, but Witting’s writing style and dedication to creating engaging characters, means that the military history novice can still happily lose themselves in his engrossing mystery.

Rating: 4.25/5

Source: Review Copy (Galileo Publishing)

See also: A Hot of Cup of Pleasure and Pretty Sinister have also reviewed this title.


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