While we can be thankful for real-life developments in forensic science that enable the speedier detection of criminals, there can be little argument that it was the death-knell of good detective fiction. Dull Inspector Arnold and his genius amateur sidekick Desmond Merrion spend so much time combing through the minutiae of the physical and mental aspect of the crime in Death in the Tunnel, and come up with such entertaining possibilities while doing so, that a crime scene tech in one of those all-over white body suits could never be a fifth as much fun. It makes me all the more appreciative of this kind of classic approach, knowing that this sort of book has seen its heyday pass.
It’s the Bodies form the Library conference this weekend, and there’s a section about John Rhode/Miles Burtons/Cecil Street, so this seemed suitable reading material in the run-up (whether it’s on the reading list I can’t remember, but it’s the only unread novel of his I had). Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead in a semi-sealed (one door locked, one door not) train compartment, shot during the train’s passage through the eponymous tunnel. An additional semi-impossible aspect here probably just about adds up to make this an impossible crime, but it’s only murder if Inspector Arnold can prove it, and so first suicide must be excepted. The first half of the narrative is then established around some ‘how’ and ‘why’ themes, with Arnold and Merrion spinning a series of beautifully intricate implications that show this genre off at its best.
This section of the book is generally great, but undone a little by the sort of unlikely developments that doubtless came from Burton/Rhode/Street writing 140-some novels. The fusty, unshowy, deliberate Arnold — anterior to this, nothing if not a wonk for detail, detail, detail — inexplicably expresses a complete disinterest in detail at the moment the key detail emerges, delaying the solution for another 30 pages. In a way, this shows off Merrion’s deductive brilliance, but since two things happen to scream This is the solution, numbnuts and Arnold pays them not the slightest heed you have to wonder if Burton/Rhode/Street was simply buying a few more pages. Still, the intervening section doesn’t drag, so there’s nothing really lost, but it reeks of an author working at high speed and to hell with character consistency.
Still, with this out of the way, the second half is then concerned with the matter of ‘who’, and becomes something quite spectacular. Not that there’s a particularly ingenious dodge or forthright piece of clewing, it’s just massively impressive to see the patterns spun from the relatively simple setup that surrounds our victim; we have a daughter, a son-in-law, a son, a niece, a lawyer, a business manager, and a few other ancillary types, and from this we get a whirligig lesson in redoubtable detective plotting that absolutely commends this as one of the books chosen by the British Library to reprint. Here Burton matches the rigour of his fellow British Library Crime Classics stablemate Freeman Wills Crofts for how comprehensively everything is taken apart and the combinations these various pieces are then fit into.
Three of the people in this circle are out of the country at the time of the murder, and so of course become automatic targets of suspicion (if you don’t see why this should be the case, well, welcome to GAD fiction!), but then there are the inexplicable actions of the victim himself, including summoning a taxi to carry him for what is usually a four-minute walk, and a confusion over guns, and two men who disappeared without ever really being known…truly, Arnold and Merrion have their work cut out in trying to get it all to work into a cohesive plot, and any reader with even a vague interest in permutations and the fitting of facts will have a field day here. A lot of what is discussed is pure speculation, but it’s a joy to see it all so carefully filtered.
It lacks for a really brilliant clue, but for sheer verisimilitude this is pretty hard to beat. As has been recorded here already, I’ve had mixedexperiences with Burton to date, but this is a wonderful piece of plotting that shows him at the peak of the genre. Come for the puzzle, for the masterful assimilation of disparate pieces, and leave character at the door; it’s a sacrifice worth making, believe me. So, come on, BL, more Burton/Rhode/Street, please. Sure, The Secret of High Eldersham is available, but I want even more again. Maybe his collaboration with Carr, eh? Eh??
Jason Half: But why should a mystery story be required to carry a Great Idea? Why must it have something to say? Detective stories are almost by definition entertainments, plots constructed by the writer to engage and beguile the reader. … Freeman Wills Crofts, whose plots often involve railways and the use of timetables to make and break suspects’ alibis, and Major John Street, who wrote dozens of books under the pseudonyms John Rhode and Miles Burton, were both prolific and popular. Their focus on the puzzle did not limit their contemporary appeal.
Colin (via Sergio) @ Tipping My Fedora: The big problem for me is the main detective, Arnold. He’s poorly defined, in my opinion, but the impression I did get was of a staid and stubborn type and, unforgivably in a detective, one who is not overburdened with intelligence. The bit of business with the railway tunnel is nicely done but not that hard to deduce how it was achieved. However, our intrepid investigators really struggle to see the solution, even when a massive clue is flung before them. When you start to feel the main investigator, from Scotland Yard no less, is essentially an obtuse bumpkin you know there are problems.