Friday’s Forgotten Book: To Kill a Cat by W. J. Burley

The works of W. J. Burley have been on my TBR list for years. I was given the opportunity to acquire a few of them recently and was able to rectify my oversight. William John Burley (1914-2002) began writing after completing a mid-career degree at Oxford and taking up teaching. His initial foray into crime fiction was with Henry Pym, a thinly disguised version of Burley himself, who like Pym was a biology teacher in a grammar school. There were only two books with zoologist Pym, though, in 1966 and 1969. Between 1968 and 2000 he turned out 22 novels featuring Detective Chief Superintendent Charles Wycliffe in Cornwall, Burley’s home. This series served as the basis for the British television series Wycliffe which ran on ITV from July 1994 through July 1998 after a pilot in 1993.

To Kill a Cat (Victor Gollanz, 1970), renamed Wycliffe and How to Kill a Cat, is the second book in the series. Superintendent Wycliffe is on vacation in a resort area of Cornwall. He drops into the local police headquarters to greet a colleague and is just in time to overhear the desk sergeant take the report of a murder in a seedy hotel. Wycliffe decides to see for himself and finds a young woman strangled and battered. She was not at all the usual kind of client the hotel attracted, which puzzled the police as well as the owner. A search of her room reveals a thousand pounds in notes, about £15,500 in present-day currency, so robbery was clearly not the motive. Wycliffe learns that she grew up in the area, married, and then left for London to find a more exciting life. Why she returned no one knows. Wycliffe, who relies a good deal on impressions and nuances, receives the impression that the people who knew the victim had more to tell than they were saying. She knew some odd people and some shady characters, giving Wycliffe several investigative threads to follow.

A classic British police procedural, Burley seems to have fallen into his stride early in the series with plotting and pacing, easily balancing action against talking. Wycliffe is more interested in watching and thinking, so readers should not expect car chases and shoot-outs, only considered and logical police process. Certainly everyone should read a few Wycliffe titles just to be familiar with an iconic series.

These books have been reprinted often, so I was spoiled for choice when it came to selecting covers. I felt I had to include the one from the original UK release. The others are my favorites from the reissues.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Crooked Lane by Frances Noyes Hart

Frances Newbold Noyes Hart (1890-1943) mostly wrote short stories for Scribner’s magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and the Ladies’ Home Journal, although sometimes she branched out into longer fiction. The Bellamy Trial (1927) was so popular that Howard Haycraft selected it as part of his original definitive list of mystery fiction, later expanded by Ellery Queen.

The plot of her last crime fiction novel The Crooked Lane (Doubleday, 1934) is straightforward enough on the surface: Karl Sheridan, trained by the Viennese police in the latest forensic techniques, returns to Washington, DC, to join what sounds like the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His family’s history with the diplomatic community ensures his immediate entrée into the choicest of social circles. He meets Tess Stuart in the opening pages of the book and his attraction to her obscures his objectivity when she pulls him in to investigate the apparent suicide of her sister.

His investigation largely takes place at one party after another, in which the various suspects reveal more than they intend to in a series of witty exchanges. The New York Times review of this book (August 19, 1934) says the conversation is too sparkling for anything but a novel. I found it makes amusing reading. Away from the parties, Sheridan employs the latest forensic techniques from Vienna, Austria, to examine clues but he is befuddled by his interest in Tess and fails to inform the local police as much as would be expected of a career law enforcement agent.

Kirkus Reviews (June 15, 1934) says this is a good story, not considering the mystery, and I agree. I actually found the mystery to be unsatisfying, as the identification of the culprit created a second question Hart left unanswered. On the other hand, the description of the Washington social whirl was fascinating, as well as the personalities and their interactions as well as Sheridan’s reactions.

What was especially intriguing is the way this story is written. Hart’s style is ornate and melodramatic, perhaps because of her experience writing for women’s magazines. The paragraphs drip with baroque imagery. Tess’s eyes are described thus: “a pair of immense eyes of the purest, the clearest silver gray—still and shining as the sky just before dawn, as young rain falling through a spring twilight, as moonlight on quiet waters.” The fountain in front of the White House: “the fountain, performing its exquisite and eternal pantomime of tossing showers of diamonds against a background of emeralds”. Coming home, Tess tosses her wrap on the sofa: “dropping the silver cloak over the end of the green-glazed sofa, so that it flowed down like a little river hurrying to the green sea of the carpet”. And Hart did not believe in standard sentence structure. Long strings of undiagrammable text are punctuated with a comma here and a dash there and wrap up with a period after six lines or so. The book is full of it. Even a mediocre editor could have reduced its length by 50 pages.

After a few chapters I found that I focused more on the writing than the story or the mystery. It is very different from the crisp, compact style of contemporary mysteries and thrillers. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t following the story line. The ending came as something of a shock, and I found myself wishing for a sequel just to find out what came next.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Last Best Hope by Ed McBain

The Last Best Hope by Ed McBain (Warner Books, 1998) is the concluding book in the Matthew Hope series of 13 titles. One of the noteworthy aspects of this story is that the author clearly ends the narrative arc of Hope’s adventures with it. That option isn’t granted to many writers. I have always found it intriguing when an author deliberately decides his (or her) creation has reached an end. This entry in the series is also anomalous in its title, the rest of the books all have titles taken from children’s stories.

Matthew Hope is a lawyer in Calusa, Florida, who is recovering from severe injuries incurred during his previous case. Hope is one of those lawyers who cannot sit quietly behind a desk and devote his attention to paperwork and legal filings. Unlike his legal brother-in-arms Perry Mason and more like Brady Coyne, Hope generally resolves his cases via investigation instead of in court. Sometimes, as his injuries attest, his investigation gets too close. This final story is no different. Jill Lawton retains him to find her missing husband, who left Florida to find work in New York City and hasn’t been heard from since. What appears to be a straightforward skip-tracing exercise changes to a murder inquiry when a body with her husband’s identification is found. Jill says the dead man is not her husband, creating an entirely new line of questions.

The only known New York address for Jill’s husband falls in the 87th Precinct’s area of responsibility, and Hope ends up talking to Steve Carella of McBain’s other long-running crime series in a great cross-over that runs through the entire book. This isn’t the only reference to McBain’s additional work. A reference to Blackboard Jungle (1954), an early book published under the name Evan Hunter pops up, as does a mention of a later Hunter novel, Lizzie (1984). There’s also a sly allusion to writers named Evan toward the end.

Parellel story lines show Hope and the police searching for the missing husband and the killer of the unidentified man while the crew of criminals plots to steal a priceless artifact from a museum. Shifting loyalties among the team and a dazzling sequence of double-crosses prove unequivocally that there is no honor among thieves. 

This isn’t a particularly old series but it is largely forgotten, unfortunately. With 13 books still readily available, it is definitely binge-worthy for those readers looking for a lengthy distraction. Fans of contemporary private investigator tales and legal thrillers might especially be interested. Some of McBain’s best work!

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) was a pillar of Golden Age crime fiction, writing under multiple names. As John Rhode, he created a series of about 70 books with Dr. Lancelot Priestley, Inspector Hanslet, and Inspector Jimmy Waghorn, published between 1925 and 1961. He also wrote short stories, stand-alone novels, stage plays, and non-fiction under this pseudonym.

As Cecil Waye, he wrote four novels about Christopher and Vivienne Perrin, private investigators in London.

Under the name Miles Burton, he wrote about 60 novels between 1930 and 1960 featuring Desmond Merrion and Inspector Henry Arnold. The first of these was The Secret of High Eldersham, also known as The Mystery of High Eldersham, published in 1930 by W. Collins, Sons & Co, and released as a British Crime Library Classic in 2016.

The residents of the village of High Eldersham in East Anglia are known to be reserved and unwelcoming to strangers. So it was a considerable surprise to the owners of the Rose and Crown that the new landlord from London, Samuel Whitehead, a retired sergeant of the Metropolitan Police, slid into his job smoothly. Until five years after his arrival, the village policeman found him stabbed to death in front of his fireplace. Whitehead was known as an easygoing landlord and had no quarrels with the locals. No one could begin to guess the motive for the murder. The county Chief Constable felt the case was beyond the abilities of the area police, to their dismay, and lost no time in sending for someone from Scotland Yard.

Detective-Inspector Robert Young quickly agreed that the village was odd. He requested help from Desmond Merrion, an acquaintance from the war whom Young considered a walking encyclopedia of offbeat trivia. Young continued the investigation along standard police lines, while Merrion looked into some of the village residents. From there, the story expands into a number of directions: witchcraft, drug trafficking, nautical elements such as tide tables and boats, and a romance.

It’s hard to imagine how such diverse threads will come together but they do. The actual mystery is good if predictable, as there are only a handful of characters that meet the essential criteria to be the villain. As others have pointed out, the momentum is uneven. There are absorbing scenes with lots of action or good dialog but the text linking them is ponderous. I was surprised to learn this title is the beginning of a long-running series: I assumed from the ending I was reading a stand-alone story. I have no idea how a series of 60 books was spun off from it. If all of the murders in the series take place in High Eldersham, it is clearly an early instance of Cabot Cove Syndrome. I must sample a few later books.

To see what others thought of the book, see the Golden Age of Detection Wiki, and Cross-Examining Crime,