#411: Six Were to Die, a.k.a. The Dark Angel (1932) by James Ronald [a.p.a by Kirk Wales]

Six Were to Diestar filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars
I feel as if I’m encroaching on the territory of John Norris at Pretty Sinister by reviewing a book that isn’t all that easy to come by; worry not, John, I don’t have well-enough stocked shelves to support this kind of habit, so it’s back to normal next week.  This title is one that — like What a Body! (1949), The Rynox Mystery (1930), Death Has Many Doors (1951), and Dead Man Control (1936) — was brought to my attenion by the Roland Lacourbe library of highly-regarded impossible crime novels, though due to the absence of a French translation did not qualify for the main list.  Well, as you can see from the rating above, I think our Francophone brethren are missing out.

We open in the home of police Divisional-Surgeon Dr. Daniel Britling, whose “persistence in doing what he termed ‘a little sleuthing’ on his own account when called to the scene of a crime” has earned him no small reputation as a criminologist in his own right.  On this particular morning he receives an anonymous letter informing him that the financier Mr. Jubal Strauss will call upon him asking for his help, but as “[y]ou are not a professional detective…there is no reason why you should allow yourself to be drawn into an affair which is none of your concern”.  Contained with the letter is an example of the writer’s harmful capabilities, along with a warning that if Britling involves himself in Strauss’ problems “[y]ou will die — swiftly and suddenly — without knowing from what quarter death has come”.

Upon Strauss’ arrival at 3pm, it transpires that he is one of a group of friends whose lives are similarly threatened from an undisclosed provenance, with Strauss informed that he will die that very afternoon at 5 o’clock.  Britling, more aghast as being threatend than moved by Strauss’ plight, agrees to help, and the two of them head to Strauss’s cohorts who have besieged themselves at his father’s grand old isolated country house, with numerous ex-policemen and -prizefighters employed to guard them round the clock, a ten-foot wall topped by an alarmed tripwire, and countless other security measures.  Despite taking many precautions, Strauss meets his death en route at the precise minute 5pm rolls around, leaving Britling in no doubt that he is facing an enemy of considerable cunning and reach.  All this, incidentally, in the first seven pages.

The ‘someone is warned they’re going to die and then they do’ subgenre has plumbed the depths of Obelists Fly High (1935) by C. Daly King (though the ‘death on cue’ therein is actually pretty smart) and soared to the heights of Carter Dickson’s The Reader is Warned (1939).  Ronald here has the gloomy foreboding of the latter, albeit infused with a propulsiveness and a freshness that manages to throw a houseful of distinct characters at you (I’d read a whole series based around Gideon Levison) and make their fear palpably realistic, while also showing the different responses these men and women have, without needing to pause the plot for much longer than the length of a breath before dipping into another gorgeously-written piece of exposition:

The timidest spinster in England would sleep untroubled by fear with a policeman’s comforting bulk in her hall, but he, who was the reverse of timid, he who had never known fear, drew no comfort from the policeman’s presence.  The arm of the law was too puny a presence to shield him from the man who sought his life.

And so people die, one by one, with Ronald smart to the scope for misdirection and impersonation, discussing them openly with the reader and employing many clever schemes in plot elements not solely related to the murders.  It’s a book which overflows with invention in this regard, cannily using the air-tight security measures against the denizens of the house, and when one character is left wondering if it’s “humanly possible…to kill a man who was alone in a room, the door of which was locked an bolted, the windows of which were shut and securely fastened”, well, I think we all know how that will turn out.  True, some of the methods employed might be a little hoary, but there’s a creativity around them which helps atone in certain regards for that (the balloons, for one, are an enjoyably eccentric touch, as is the man shot three times in the head with unerring accuracy while driving at high speed).

Pleasingly, too, we get an explanation as each death occurs, rather than waiting for our Genius Amateur to wrap it all up with a big speech come the end.  The ‘play along at home’ aspect is a trifle compromised as a result, but structuring it this way at least makes the absence of true fair play more tolerable (little is more frustrating that waiting for the Big Soliloquy to be told something you had no chance of ever knowing; best get it out of the way quickly).  The only real fault I can lay at the feet of this — unsurprising, given its pulpy nature — is that the whole enterprise devolves into a rather uninspired chase-n-shoot once the villain is known, and I feel like what came before deserves better (it’s easy to forget that the tendrils of ‘sensation’ fiction were still wrapped around the edges of this genre even into the 1930s, since we tend to view this as a prime Golden Age era).  Still, Ronald emerges here as a writer of no small talent, and I look forward eagerly to the other books of his that I have tracked down.


For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to Quick Curtain from last week since the murders in both are committed with a financial motive behind them.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Number in the title.

20 thoughts on “#411: Six Were to Die, a.k.a. The Dark Angel (1932) by James Ronald [a.p.a by Kirk Wales]

  1. This sounds quite intriguing. I for one appreciate a mid-book explanation of a crime rather than making us wait for a single, big summation and accusation session and I like the idea of the announced death. I’m not sure if this is one that I’ll ever easily come across but I’ve made a note just in case I ever stumble on a copy.


  2. “All this, incidentally, in the first seven pages.”
    1. Drops everything
    2. Rushes to book store
    3a. “Oh cool, a Dell map back edition!”
    3b. Reality – hangs head

    I wasn’t able to find this one, but there are a number of other James Ronald books that I managed to find – some with nice editions like 50’s era Popular Library. I may have to read up on his other titles. Have you heard anything else about his work?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I should probably mention that this Cherry Tree edition has teeny tiny print and only runs to 96 pages — nevertheless, there’s still a huge amount happening in that opening, and it’s only with the anachronistic “chase the villains” ending that the pace ever really lets up.

      Can’t tell you much else about his work, except that I have three others at present: They Can’t Hang Me, Murder in Gay Ladies, and This is Temptation. John Norris was a big fan of TCHM, and it’s also on that Lacourbe list, so it seemed a fairly safe buy without having read anything else by Ronald. The others I happened to pick up along the way and don’t know much about them in terms of quality. It’s pretty difficult to fins much in the way of opinion on his work — maybe I could make him a project of mine as Puzzle Doctor has with Brian Flynn…!


  3. I highly recommend these James Ronald mystery novels which seem to be the easiest to find:

    They Can’t Hang Me (reviewed on my blog)
    Murder in the Family
    This Way Out (an inverted detective novel similar to Iles and Berkeley)

    These are less easy to find, but I liked both:

    She Got What She Asked For (crime, not detection)
    Death Croons the Blues

    Of what I’ve read of him so far the best of the lot is They Can’t Hang Me, the only book that I know of that was reprinted as a Popular Library paperback (from the 1940s, BTW) mentioned above. There is no Dell mapback edition of any James Ronald book. I don’t know what Dan is talking about above. Most of his books were not published in the US at all, as a mater of fact. That ought to make it easier to find his work over there for this primarily UK based readership of JJ’s blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, wonderful — thanks, John! Ben’s reference to a Dell mapack is a reference to his ability to find popular GAD books in exquisite editions. He has a paperback library of such high quality that I intend to inveigle myself into his good graces in the hope he predeceases me and leaves them to me in his will.

      Appreciate these recommendations; you promised more Ronald reviews in your TCHM piece but I couldn’t find any more on your blog. And if he’s not there, given your ability to track down and review the most obscure-yet-brilliant books going, where else am I going to find out about him?! 🙂


      • Apologies for another unfulfilled promise, JJ. Many of my posts promise more of a certain writer, but I’ve never followed through. That’s the case with James Ronald. While I may have read his books I just never got around to writing more posts for one reason or another. Too often I find myself reading about a new writer, seeing an obituary online, or seeing a photograph of an intriguing book and then I’m suddenly lost in the world of that writer and those books. Then I end up reading that writer and writing about those books completely forgetting about my plans to do a series on a previously read writer. I’ve done this countless times on my blog. I should just stop making those “stay tuned” comments altogether.


        • John, I entirely sympathise — with your bookselling connections, too, there must be so much scope to get distracted by the next obscure and brilliant-sounding thing. Hell, what am I saying — I don’t sympathise, I envy you! And you have written more about James Ronald, you just did it here, and I’ve bought Murder in the Family and This Way Out on your recommendations, which is exactly what I was after! I sincerely hope you’re able to share your feelings on those when I write about them here if you don’t have time to do it at your place. It’s a great community we have, and this sharing of experiences is wonderful.


  4. Oh, almost forgot! — you ought to be aware that the Cherry Tree paperbacks (like the one you picture on this post and I assume read) are abridged versions. Each book is only 90 pages and a LOT of the story is cut in order to make them that neat length. This is not mentioned anywhere in the book itself. I learned it over time when comparing them to the original source. Plus, the fact that every single one of thee Cherry Tree digests is only 90 pages is sort of a give away that something was up with them. Dell Mapbacks also tend to be abridged even though many of them are never noted as such.


    • Awwww, man! I had assumed it was so short because the print is hilariously small (with normal size printing I reckon it would be about twice as long, in keeping with most GAD novels). Thanks for making that clear, because a) yup, it’s not mentioned anywhere in the book itself and b) when I found this edition and saw how short it was I did some searching to see if it was abridged but could find nothing. I assumed the publisher was required to tell you if they’d cut anything out and took it as a good sign when nothing was there. Clearly not.

      So now you’re saying I’m in a fight with everyone else trying to track down the full length text? Me and my big mouth…


  5. I’ve read and heard of James Ronald before, particularly this book, but never came across any of his titles. So here we have another candidate who’s in desperate need of being reprinted.

    Seriously, they should just go ahead and permanently bring all of these old titles back in print. They can put the royalties in the bank for whenever they stumble across a copyright holder or a relative of the writer turns up out of the blue.


    • I, er, may have already gone and bought the titles John N recommended above, so if anyone needs the texts to scan for a reprint I’ll soon have quite the James Ronald Library…

      In all seriousness, though, this would be a great addition to the HarperCollins detective club reprints — it’s on that same verge of transition between schools that so many of those titles represent, rather than falling into the (generally) more crime-and-detection idiom of the BLCC series. Ronald would be a great one to rediscover in that series, and if someone wants me to research an introduction, well, I’d allow my arm to be twisted… 🙂


  6. Pingback: #462: Little Fictions – Curiosities from Adey: ‘Too Many Motives’ (1930) by James Ronald | The Invisible Event

  7. Pingback: #463: They Can’t Hang Me (1938) by James Ronald | The Invisible Event

  8. The 1930’s was a difficult period between two world wars. Authors, earning a living from their imaginings, sought every opportunity to capitalise on their original stories. James Ronald was no exception and followed a tried and tested procedure. His story The Dark Angel first appeared in serial form in April 1930 in The Portsmouth Evening News. In Australia the same story was titled The White Card. He offers The Dark Angel to The Modern Publishing Company, 6 Farringdon Avenue WC2. It is published in 1936 with a G. P. Micklewright Jacket (Mystery Thriller series 697). I am aware of no connection between this story and Six Were to Die and I would be interested to know how the connection arose.
    The Dark Angel begins:
    When an elderly spinster of ample means receives a letter threatening her with death unless she pays the anonymous Writer five thousand pounds, there are several things she may do. She may faint, send for the police, call in the assistance of her largest male relative, or dismiss her private secretary.
    When Miss Elspeth Brownrigg opened the blackmailing letter which she received one September morning, she neither screamed nor fainted. She had too much self-possession for that. Neither did she dismiss her private secretary, who was indispensable to her. Instead, she chose the second and third alternatives, sending for the police in the person of her nephew, Norman Brownrigg.


    • I’m desperate to track down more James Ronald, so even this tiny glimpse at one of his works is appreciated, Chris — thank-you! And, yes, the reuse of plots and conceits was far from uncommon; if it’s good enough for Agatha Christie, then I’m sure many others were only too happy to live with it 🙂


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