Published by Arcturus Crime Classics; ISBN: 978 1 84858 080 0

I have recently discovered more of the golden age crime writers, and although this is a little late to be a true golden age novel (it was first published in 1948), it was written by one of the founders of the Crime Writers’ Association, which gives it a certain interest. Roger Bax was the pseudonym of Paul Winterton, an author and journalist who wrote some 40 novels in various genres including “mystery, detection, thriller, espionage and romance.”

This is labelled “An Inspector James Mystery” – which seems more than a little unreasonable. After all, I expect a crime novel or “mystery” to stick to certain conventions. First and foremost, I expect there to be some kind of mystery from the outset. This is one of those books that defies standard conventions, though. As a brief example, I can happily tell you that Arthur Cross was the murderer. That’s not exactly a spoiler, since the author tells you that on about the first page in the preface. 

In reality this book is not a whodunit, but a “howdunit” because the entire story is, as the title suggests, a blueprint on how Cross is going to murder his uncle, Charles Collison, in order to inherit his fortune. 

There are obstacles to his ambition, naturally. This being written at a time when capital punishment was the standard deterrent, he rather wanted to escape suspicion or capture. Thus, he decided that he had to create the perfect alibi, a matter which led to him finding witnesses to his own location and convincing them that they were with him far from the murder when it happened. To do that he must fake locations, cheat people, and hope that someone else might get the blame – his cousin, Geoffrey, the son of the victim. 

In terms of the good Inspector James – well this is not a Sherlock Holmes lookalike. He is a fairly bumbling character, who appears to depend on luck and his own character assessment to find the perpetrator. In fact James hardly appears in the book. He doesn’t turn up until page 86, and then is gone by page 133, not returning until the last pages, 252/3. From 133 onwards, there is no detection, and in fact he admits to his superiors that he cannot find an angle to make an accusation, far less an arrest.

So the book starts with an outline of how to commit a crime, and then runs through the pitfalls in the plan: how things might go wrong, how a murderer could give himself away, and then how his supposedly bullet-proof alibi can be shot to pieces.

It is really rather good. I didn’t find the inspector particularly interesting. He smoked a pipe and was moderately polite – and that really is about all the impression I got of him. As a detective, he displayed absolutely no flair whatsoever. If you’re hoping for Lord Peter Wimsey, forget it. My impression is that this is a story which intended to be modern, and much more true to life than the true golden age detective novels. So we have a series of unfortunate incidents that lead to the uncovering of the criminal.

That being said, it was a satisfying read, but not brilliant. It is probably fairly realistic for its time, and the characterisation was quite strong – although the motivation of the murderer was a little flakey – at least to my mind. Again, it’s not giving anything away to say that the murderer was an orphan from an early age, and was brought up by his uncle with uncommon generosity. His uncle Charles was a wealthy business owner, who settled good incomes on his son and nephew when they returned from the war and made it clear that they would inherit all his wealth. Cross was already set up for life by someone who was very much his friend and ally. Yet he decided to kill the man, and hoped to leave the blame on his childhood friend, Geoffrey. There is a bit of the nature vs nurture debate here, and it’s made clear that Arthur had a very unpleasant war, which led to his becoming a collaborator in a concentration camp – clearly Bax was trying to set up a justification for his premise that Arthur Cross could turn so violently against his adoptive family – but it doesn’t ring true to me. Why would a POW be installed in a concentration camp? More, why would he be treated as a “trusty” prisoner and take part in murders? I’m not aware of any allegations that British POWs were ever installed in concentration camps. Commandos were murdered out of hand on capture after Hitler’s infamous laws against irregular forces, but I’m not aware of any being transported to the execution camps, and even if one or two had, I seriously doubt that such trusties would be allowed to have access to firearms and permitted to become second class German guards, as seems to be implied here. 

So there is a bit of a hole in the story. There’s also a love story included, which is … well, it was written in the 1940s, so you have to cut the guy some slack, but let’s just say that the dialogue and progression of the affair is hardly scintillating!

However, this is a very interesting book. It is a story of its time, but the writing is very accomplished generally. If you can suspend a degree of disbelief, it unrolls as a very engaging and absorbing tale, showing how a man who is methodical and competent, and without compassion, could plot and plan a murder. All those sections were fascinating and well depicted.

So not, perhaps, a perfect read, but one well worth the investment. 


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