My first encounter with James Ronald was via the puply and hugely entertaining Six Were to Die, a.k.a. The Dark Angel (1932), in which six business associates found their lives threatened by an ex-colleague they had wronged, and were killed one by one in ingenious ways. Six years later, he wrote They Can’t Hang Me (1938), in which four business associates find their lives threatened by an ex-colleague they have wronged, and are killed one by one in ingenious ways. And, hell, when the book is this good, I wouldn’t mind if he’d written this plot another 25 times. In fact, I wish he had. This, my friends, is a little beauty.
Things progress quickly: in the first chapter Joan Marplay learns that the father she never met, newspaper owner Lucius Marplay, did not in fact die when she was a baby but has instead spent these last 20 years in an asylum. In the second chapter she learns the reason for his psychosis — the failure of his paper — and his murderous vengeance sworn against the four trusted deputies he maintains cheated him out of his livelihood. And in chapter 3 Lucius Marplay escapes from his gaol — very cannily, you have to admire the old bugger — and finds his way to Fleet Street, having already spelled out his intentions:
“I don’t want to be pronounced sane. One of these days, you see, I shall escape from here and commit those murders and then not being right in the head will come in very handy. If I’m a certified lunatic they can’t hang me.”
From here the novel does two things, both brilliantly. The first is to become an Edgar Wallace, Four Just Men-ish, thriller with undoubted evildoers brought to rights on account of the derring-do and brass neck of an avenging force no-one can stop. In doing so it is enlivened by the brilliance of Ronald’s written expression:
A thousand whispers rustled through the building, adding theory to rumour and fiction to fantasy, making massacre out of murder; until a ghost stood in every corner, with blood-dripping knife, lurking for the unwary. Every lavatory and washroom was full; corridors and department offices were all but empty. Clerks and typists gathered in clusters, adding gruesome details to a rapidly growing tale of horror, about which none of them knew the simple truth.