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.
It also helps that Ronald conjures a roster of characters — from Joan Marplay, her guardian Agatha Trimm, the society reporter Lord Noel Stretton, and the alcohol-pickled ex-newspaperman Flinders (who becomes more human the more he drinks (and is first introduced in unendurable sobriety clothed in “the cast-offs of a scarecrow”, his flesh “the unwholesome white of the underside of a fish), to the policeman Superintendent Wrenn, the independent investigator Alastair MacNab, and the four “murderees” — who are realised with far greater grace that his pulp background might admit. The broad Scots strokes of MacNab are especially enjoyable, and the more he works himself into proceedings the more disbelieving those around him become, allowing for some good, strong comedy that doesn’t detract from proceedings one jot. Even minor characters have their moment to shine, such as the butler who would never dream of smiling but whose “severity perceptibly relaxed” upon opening the door to Joan, or the printer who, upon being fired by newspaper head honcho Mark Peters, leaves the room saying “something that sounded like: ‘Parcels to you, Mr. Peters,’ but wasn’t”.
The second thing it does magnificently is — quite unexpectedly — provide a brilliant insight into the running of a newspaper. It doesn’t sound gripping, but it is. This whole plot revolves around the Echo, after all, and the novel works far better for the difficulties and the complexity of this publication being so well parsed, while also stirring in the mystery of how their rivals are consistently able to beat them to stories even with the building in lockdown. If Ronald had no background in newspaper work this is especially impressive, but I’d be amazed if he didn’t — he writes like a man who knows whereof he speaks, and such pin-sharp background detail is ideal for the murder and mayhem that take place against it.
Of those murders, two are impossible: I’ll give no details, since it’s fun to watch them unfold. The workings of both were rather plain to me — we’re in crime novel territory here, rather than detection, so a certain amount of assumptions need to be made — but that doesn’t stop them being gorgeously set up and enjoyably executed. You feel the need to admonish someone who engages in such tomfoolery as, after being told they’re going to die in their office that afternoon, actually spending that afternoon in their office, but I was having so much fun that it didn’t bother me too greatly. And, yes, in the final furlong there’s a lot of Sudden Information Revealed — we’re in a very pulp-heavy vein here — which means it’s nowhere close to fair play, but it also contains a moment of such bold misdirection that I swore out loud when it was revealed, and one aspect of the connivery unveiled is so gorgeously, hug-yourself creative that only a cold heart could fail to love it.
Man, I could write about this book all day. It’s fast (I read the last hundred pages in a blink), it’s witty, it’s creative, it’s superbly written, it’s alarmingly fresh in certain regards — the slimy, predatory Ambrose Crave feels disturbingly like something out of the #MeToo movement — and the story is told with a minimum of temporising and some refreshing perspectives on the role of filial obligation. I freakin’ loved it, and consider myself very lucky to have found a copy for sensible money. Should similar fortune smile upon you, buy it; I can’t promise you won’t regret it, but there’s so much here to love that you’re a very cold fish indeed if it doesn’t stir some joy inside of you.
John @ Pretty Sinister: I’m glad to report that despite his background in pulp digests James Ronald does indeed merit all the praise lavished upon him. They Can’t Hang Me is a corker of a mystery novel. Ingenious murder methods call to mind the brilliant John Rhode; two impossible crimes, one of which is worthy of Carr; and witty dialogue reminiscent of Clifford Witting. All are on colorful display in this page-turner of a story.