I’ve been able, in only the briefest of online searches, to find little on the British pulp writer James Ronald, but the small amount of his material I have read thus far has been very enjoyable.
Adey lists four impossible crimes: the novels Six Were to Die, a.k.a. The Dark Angel (1932), Cross Marks the Spot (1933), and They Can’t Hang Me (1938), and the short story ‘Too Many Motives’ (1930), originally published in the now defunct 20 Story Magazine in the April of that year. I’m not going to pretend for a second that Ronald is one of the genre’s stylists, or most accomplished misleaders and plotters, but his use of the pulp trappings to tell a story appeals to my sensibilities immensely. On the recommendation of John Norris I have already acquired the Ronald novels Murder in the Family (1936) and This Way Out (1940), and you can expect reports on those in due course.
Today, however, belongs to the business tycoon Mark Savile, who upon turning 54 invites to dine at his home four men. Four friends? No. Savile is so brazen in his disregard of the feelings of others that he may not be possessed of any friends in the normal sense of the word, and so he “celebrated his fifty-fourth birthday by a dinner party to four men of the many who hated him”. Our guest list comprises John Borrow — “whose best friend had shot himself, driven out of his mind by the ruin that Savile had brought upon him”; Harold Denholm — over whom “Savile had a powerful hold”; Lord Clavering — aware “Savile was the only one who knew the real condition” of a company in which he has a stake; and Dennis Barclay — whose “young lady jilted him for another man — a man named Savile”, and who tore the invitation to shreds upon seeing its provenance. By the end of the evening Savile will be dead, these four men will all be under suspicion, with only a partially-completed letter from Savile himself to point the way.
Into this will wade Divisional-Surgeon Daniel Britling, on double duty much like in Six Were to Die, as once again he is “quite incapable of attending strictly to the routine tasks of his office”. Naturally, his continued success in such extra-curricular endeavours “did not enhance his popularity with certain of his colleagues” but, well, sleuth’s gotta sleuth I suppose.
A sizeable portion of this story is given over the Savile goading his guests throughout dinner until one of them punches him and the others drag the assailant away, and the mood is conjured up with that delightful efficiency the pulps encouraged:
The meal, while not an elaborate one, was deliciously cooked. Each of the four courses of which it consisted had been chosen with the discrimination of a connoisseur.
The wines which accompanied the dinner added a touch of perfection.
The atmosphere was as strained as it must have been on those occasions when the Borgias dined with their enemies.
With Savile at first keeping to the “few subjects which these five could have discussed amicably together”, the talk soon turns to financial concerns, and then crime, and then murder as “the king pin of all crimes”. Soon people are saying things like “To kill a man who has ruined a friend who trusted him…would be no more reprehensible than to decapitate a snake”, the fight breaks out, and Savile is left alone to nurse his feelings and write a brief missive indicating who of the four he thinks is most likely to wish him murderous harm. It’s a missive he will never finish, as soon all four guests will be recalled to Savile’s house to view his corpse…and the plethora of motives doing the rounds will come into play.
Technically, then, it’s a shame that this isn’t an impossible crime. Adey summarises the problem as “Death by shooting in a locked room”, but the lockedness of the room never really comes into it — Savile is in his study, which is not locked, in his house, which is not locked, and it would be entirely possible for any of the suspects to have returned to the house, been admitted, shot Savile, and then left. There is a consideration which indicates why Adey calls this an impossibility, and it’s something which comes up on a moderately regular basis in a particular branch of story that really needs its own classification. I appreciate that the chances of anyone reading this are slim — it’s on microfilm in the British Library, so remains a possibility — but I still have no desire to indicate what this consideration is. In fact, there’s a very famous example (and one I’ve written about on this blog) which would immediately give the game away for a number of you, but I’m not saying those two words — that’s all the hint you’ll get from me.
What is very interesting to me is how many threads can be picked here that lead onto more celebrated impossible cases. This story predates nearly all of them, but I’m not for a second making the case that Ronald is directly responsible for those recurrences — it’s just fun to note how the same sorts of shapes and colours crop up time and again, despite the diversity of framings, plottings, and resolutions. Aspects of the solution here recall a key element of The Hollow Man, a.k.a. The Three Coffins (1935) by John Dickson Carr, as well as a very key aspect of Agatha Christie’s masterpiece And Then There Were None (1939); and, continuing to mix in esteemed circles, the key clue to what has gone on is not dissimilar to an important element of The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934) by Ellery Queen. Though it also recalls an episode of the recent Mark Williams-starring Father Brown (2013-present) TV series, which only goes to show that you can’t win ’em all.
The detection here is very good, however. Necessarily a little simple on account of its brevity, but built on excellent inferences from two key realisations that don’t jump out at you in the way cheap tricks often do: the position of the corpse’s feet, and the presence of dirty fingerprints on his shirt-cuff. And Ronald is adpet at dropping in character beats of little consequence but pure delight — such as the butler and manservant sitting down over a clandestine drink to discuss the ruin Barclay has been run to by Savile, and who have become “in their own way…great connoisseurs” of their master’s high quality wines and ports — and isn’t above humanising his police detective who, frustrated at Britling’s interference and the reticence of three witnesses, makes the final dinner guest a suspect purely because the others are as well.
Britling is an interesting character purely on account of how low-key he comes across for someone cast in the Great Detective style; “We must use the things we know as a basis for learning the things we should like to know” isn’t as catchy as Holmes and his “Once we have eliminatied the impossible…”, but it has about it the same reaching for immortality in the way every superhero movie has since the early 2000s been trying to make a point as catchy as “With great power comes great responsibility”. He’s enough of an outsider — we’re told that “Scotland Yard officials…sometimes made pointed comments about his large head, which they attributed to conceit” and that the disparaging sobriquet ‘Dapper Dan’ follows him around on account of his “meticulous” dress sense and his Van Dyke beard and moustache which is “trimmed daily” — to reinforce the Holmesian aesthetic while also bringing to mind a certain fastidious little Belgian, hein? Either way, I like him, and I hope to stumble over more stories featuring him.
Ronald, then, is unlikely ever to be more than a very brief footnote in the genre, but it’s a footnote I’m keen to explore. Maybe I’ll read the above-mentioned books, lose interest, and move on. Or maybe he’ll become for me as Brian Flynn has for Puzzle Doctor. Time will tell, starting with They Can’t Hang Me this Thursday…