I love a country house mystery, especially those with a body on page one. So when the murder of ex-judge Sir Ernest Ferber in his private garden by man he sentenced harshly and the subsequent suicide of his assailant at the scene is communicated in the opening ten lines of The Baddington Horror, we’re off to a very good start. To my understanding, Walter S. Masterman wrote as many ‘weird tales’ as he did novels of detection, and so it was always a little uncertain what I was going to get here. But the first chapter could not be more Golden Age detection if it tried: murdered aristocrat, retired amateur detective who takes an interest, two big coincidences, and away we go…
You don’t need me to tell you that the murdered man was also unpopular, viewed in the bucolic surrounds of his ancestral pile as a bounder in the most unambiguous terms:
Dreadful stories of his wanton cruelty and abuse of power — largely fictitious — had crept round the firesides on winter’s nights. He had become something fabulous — an ogre from the past.
They talked together, these women, none daring to voice the thought that was in every mind: Banks, the dead convict, was the hero, the deliverer. They would have sent wreaths for his funeral had they dared.
Masterman, however, is not innovator enough to turn completely widdershins against convention, so of course things aren’t as simple as they first appear. There will be missing documents, a suspicious butler, the world’s most scrutinised rhododendron bush, personal misrepresentation, disguises, and a few revelations (a good many of them sprung on you without any real fair play) before this murder is largely cleared up…at the halfway stage of the book. And then, recalling the structure of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928) among others, a further revelation sends us cartwheeling down a new path.
What is interesting is how much time the book divides itself between two camps. Tonally we’re rather more in the style of the Victorian sensation novel with occasional forays towards detection: typically, sleuth Sir Arthur Sinclair pops up to tell us he’s done some investigating and found some things, and most of the time he was so engaged we spent with other characters discussing trivial things and occasionally dropping a Dark Hint About Something. It feels about 80 years too late, with the nature of the investigating doubtless very dull, and simply being given an answer without being there for the question to be lifted and dropped on your plate is somewhat dislocating. The closest you get to a proper clue for most of this is the contents of a picture not explained accurately enough to provide you with the necessary tickle of inspiration.
The characters, too, are treated with varying degrees of insight and lethargy: series sleuth Sinclair is a deliberately aloof presence required to roll the plot to its next juncture, but Vera Graham and Doreen Glynne are very well realised as women who, for various reasons, have good cause to be disappointed by the lives they’ve lived. Henry Forster is a Young Romantic Hero who is talkative, taciturn, trusting, tatterdemalion, and truculent by turns as the plot requires it, and almost everyone else is an archetype of the sort seen in The Border Line, the only other book I’ve read by this author. There’s also a resurrection of the similar sort of romance to the on seen there, too, so it’s possible this was just Masterman’s go-to for this required ingredient in the mix. More reading will hopefully unpick this further.
Because I will read more. While not one of the genre’s great prose stylists, Masterman has an occasional flourish of the pen that sets him apart at times — the decorations in the hall where the inquest is held, the coroner’s invocation of felo de se, a servant undertaking a task “with obvious disrelish” — and makes the otherwise-prosaic flow of this a slightly more engaging experience. And, in fairness to his lack of disclosure, I don’t think he was even vaguely intending to write a fair play novel of detection, steering a very deliberate course away from that, and relying on the sort of detection (thankfully off-page) that would even set Inspector Joseph French’s teeth on edge.
There’s not quite enough here to slough off the doubts I have around Masterman’s writing, but I remain ineffably curious. He is exactly the type of curio that Ramble House specialise in: perhaps lacking Max Afford’s atmosphere, Norman Berrow’s fun, E.C.R. Lorac’s classicism, and Rupert Penny’s plotting, but there’s enough here to catch the imagination if you don’t expect everything you read to be a classic. From the available Ramble House titles below, does anyone have any recommendations? John Norris has previously commended The Yellow Mistletoe, and despite calling The Perjured Alibi “so dull I couldn’t finish it” it at least sounds like my kind of thing…so any further guidance is appreciated.
The novels of Walter S. Masterman available from Ramble House:
The Green Toad (1929)
The Bloodhounds Bay (1930)
The Yellow Mistletoe (1930)
The Flying Beast (1932) The Baddington Horror (1934)
The Perjured Alibi (1935) The Border Line (1937)
The Wrong Verdict (1938)
The Curse of Cantire (1940)