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.
I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Any Piece of Furniture.
For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s Antidote to Venom for the reason that in both novels the guilty persons share a profession. Is that a spoiler? Well, you’re unlikely to remember it anyway…
Walter S. Masterman on The Invisible Event
The Wrong Letter (1926)
The Curse of the Reckaviles (1927)
The Mystery of Fifty-Two (1931)
The Baddington Horror (1934)
The Perjured Alibi (1935)
The Border Line (1937)
Back from the Grave (1940)
12 thoughts on “#234: The Baddington Horror (1934) by Walter S. Masterman”
“Widdershins”? Seriously? Sounds fun though – ta mate 😀
What’s wrong with widdershins? I’ve told you this is an educational blog… 🙂
I have read this book. Though it starts off well, it soon becomes so dull that I can’t rate it higher than 2. This has prevented me from reading his other books.
Yeah, I think I was expecting it to be more in the style of GAD going in, but when it turned into more of a Victorian sensation novel I adjusted my expectations. But on those initial hopes it doesn’t quite deliver, I agree, which is why I’ve tried to makes its true nature clear here.
I think I’ll give one more Masterman a go and, if that’s in the same sort of vein as these two, leave him alone for a bit after that. But I could easily believe that he’s written one genius piece of brilliance without necessarily then knowing how it happened or how to replicate it.
Loving the word widdershins – where do you find these cool words that I really want to slip into conversation?
Interesting review as it sounds like Masterman is sort doing a form of genre of hybridity, though whether it is entirely successful is another matter. There are a smattering of writers from the 20s and 30s who try to mesh a GAD detective fiction plot with other styles and it is always intriguing to see whether it works or not.
What I find most interesting about this is how out-of-era it feels: I really do get the sense that he thinks he’s plotting for the mid-1800s…and that can’t be accidental, right? So there has to be a point where this approach really worked out for him. But I can’t imagine what that book must be like…!
As for widdershins and friends…dunno, I just find ’em in my reading mostly, or in conversation. Maybe this means I have a lot of conversations with pretentious people. Or, hey, maybe I’m the pretentious one…
I don’t think I want to read this, but inDO want to know if I have ever struck anyone as tatterdemalion. WTF?? Widdershins, indeed!
tatterdemalion: disreputable, ruined, having fallen into disrepair (be that literally or figuratively)… I always assumed it to be the origins of when a thing is said to be “left in tatters” following a notable event or significant fall from grace. No?
LikeLiked by 1 person
Makes sense. And no, I’m not tatterdemehatsis!
Well, you certainly make the start of the book sound very interesting. There’s nothing better than a murder on page one. I’m usually happy with it in the first chapter. My favorite example is Seeing is Believing by Carr, where the murder takes place in the first sentence.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Masterman was apparently born in 1876 so I guess he may well have been brought up Victorian sensation novels. Perhaps he disapproved on the new-fangled golden age style.
An interesting idea, perhaps he was heavily influenced by what was prevalent in his youth. Wouldn’t be the first author this was the case for, I’m sure, though surely by the mid-1930s he was going very against the grain of his chosen genre. Still, write what you love…