Among the books which have — through a combination of small print runs, lapsed rights, and enthusiasm among those who know the genre intimately — taken on an apocryphal aspect, The Death of Laurence Vining (1928) by Alan Thomas has been my white whale for quite some time. So when a fellow fan offered me a loan of their copy…well, c’mon.
After 20 years of searching for this, my expectations were perhaps higher than is strictly fair, and while the book does have is structural flaws there’s plenty here to that’s good to balance against the inevitable flaws that exist in practically every work of fiction. First and foremost here is the framing of our eponymous victim Laurence Vining, who in Thomas’ world is a private consulting detective of no small reputation, a man of independent means who “could afford to devote his mind to the pursuit of knowledge” and whose assistance to the Criminal Investigation Department is “incidental to [his] interest”.
[F]rom a man, he had turned into a cold, penetrating intelligence, retaining hardly any of those qualities which endear man to man or to woman…. Among the many subjects which he made his peculiar study, crime was one, and on more than a few occasions he had been of real assistance to the authorities in unravelling the mysteries with which criminals sought to surround themselves.
So, yes, you’ll be getting certain parallels with a certain famous consulting detective, which is clearly Thomas’ intent, especially when Dr. Ben Willing is brought into view:
In all Vining’s more practical investigations — and particularly those connected with crime — Ben had been his confidant; he had been permitted to see the great mind at work, and to follow its processes as best he could… and had more than once been rebuked — and that in no uncertain terms — for his “failure to exhibit the first elements of an analytical mind.”
And, just in case any doubt still lingers…
“I suppose they’ll be calling you Dr. Watson next!” said Martha to her brother.
The fun of all this being that we know from the title that our Sherlock is going to meet his maker at some point, and when it occurs it’s a puzzle worthy of such a great mind. Summoned to Knightsbridge by a mysterious missive, Vining enters the lift (or elevator, for our American cousins) down to the underground train platform and, being alone in said lift, is sent down by the operator at surface level. And when the lift arrives at the platform, a journey of a hundred or so yards which it completes without stopping — the operator at platform level opens the doors and finds Vining stabbed in the back.
And so, well, you can guess what happens next…
“Martha,” [Ben] exclaimed, “I must do this thing.”
“You must do what thing?” asked the startled lady.
“I must discover the secret of Vining’s death. Have I not worked with him? Do I not know his methods? Have I not watched him a hundred times as he has gone to work, scenting and ferreting out the truth, sifting it from the false? His mantle has fallen upon me…”
See? The concept of ‘Sherlock is dead, Watson must find his killer’ is the sort of innovation Anthony Berkeley would love, and one can well imagine that august gentleman of the detective plot applauding Thomas’ chutzpah in bringing this to fruition. Except, and herein lies the first problem, we don’t actually follow Dr. Ben Willing as he puzzles out the mystery of Vining’s death — he’s rather more of a background character as the police, in the person of Inspector Widgeon, leap into action…and it feels like an opportunity missed. While Ben may seek to involve himself at times, elevating his own importance in the matter to better inveigle his way into things, he’s an at-best occasional presence in the story…no doubt that’s more true to life, but it immediately makes the setup slightly less compelling.
Still, the book has much to commend it despite this fumble. Thomas works in some fascinating discussion about the impact of the Great War on the minds of the men who returned from the fighting (“It didn’t mean that you hadn’t killed somebody because that somebody happened to be a German. You had killed, and what was more, you not only weren’t hanged for it, you were actually patted on the back. Quite right too; all the same, it was a dangerous precedent to set.”) and does well to give a sense of the sensation that the murder of such a visible individual would be. Questioned by the police, one witness is simply pleased that “they could not say that she was an unimportant person”, and there’s a harbinger of the invasive nature of today’s press in the newspapers’ “insatiable curiosity [for] every detail — relevant and irrelevant — concerning every man, woman and child who is even in the remotest way connected with the case.”
Thomas does, too, some good work with minor characters, typifying solicitors as “persons torn between reluctance to let the cat out of the bag and desire to see which way it would jump” and playing on the general sense of disbelief evinced by the populace that someone who bears a striking resemblance to the photo in the paper of a wanted man might actually be said wanted man because, well, what are the chances of that happening? Alas, this is also the 1920s, and so there’s an unfortunate treatment of Vining’s Malayan manservant, Suleiman, who is talked about by characters in unfortunately-chosen language that might be telling us about the speaker’s ignorant perspective (“I can never tell any of yer from the other. Ye’re all the same to me. All the same.”) were it not for the line uttered by the policeman to whom Suleiman surrenders himself after going on the run. and so reveals itself more as the ignorant perspectives of the time.
That aside, the book might actually be more successful as a character-piece than a mystery, because the investigation takes a long time to grind out obvious dead-end clues (the who was, it must be said, rather obvious to me from early on, even if the finer points of how eluded me) before terminating in an interesting state of affairs: Widgeon identifies the criminal (how, I’m not entirely sure…) but can find no evidence against them and so, with 30 pages remaining, we then switch to the killer’s diary for an explanation of the motive and method deployed. For this piece of structural playfulness, I again applaud Thomas’ insight into the young genre, but good heavens doesn’t this ever come with some difficulties of its own.
Look, the method used is clever, that I will not deny. There’s a core trick deployed that’s old hat now — Death in Paradise is quite fond of it — but which is communicated here with a subtlety that meant I almost missed it despite it being the one thing I was looking out for. The problem with Thomas structuring his reveal this way is that there are a lot of…ancillary concerns which needs to be considered in order for the trick to come off, and the killer goes through these at tedious, interminable length ahead of actually telling you how it was done, and since the book has already dragged itself out a little bit to make its core problem into a novel-length endeavour, well, I’d advise putting the book down for an hour or two before jumping into this final section because it is ponderous, colourless, and humdrum in the worst possible way. Yes, I know you want to know the answers, but trust me on this.
And so The Death of Laurence Vining comes out as a curate’s egg. A debut of some promise for the way it throws over the Great Detective trope and the cleverness of its core scheme, but riddled with too much padding and unable find an interesting way to resolve its questions. Is it a classic for all time? No. I’m always of the feeling that novels which make a point of including detectives as characters — especially genius amateur ones — should resolve their mysteries by, y’know, detection, and Thomas’ lack of declaration at times here vexes my symmetry-seeking soul. Sure, the genre is young(ish…) and so a certain callowness can be borne, but if you’re going to just commit a clever murder and then tell me how at the end I’d like the bit between those two occurrences to be a little more…vital.
Nevertheless, this is an entertaining time that shows flashes of brilliant writing — though it joins The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) by Agatha Christie on the pantheon of books who have an idealised view of how the forging of handwriting is achieved — and augurs well for any further detective fiction Thomas went on to write. And that last point is the absolute kicker, because I’d love to go on to read more of Thomas’ work, but…can anyone find it for sensible money? Or, indeed, at all?
But, hey, it’s not like I lack for reading material, I guess…
Ben @ The Green Capsule: In between the murder of Laurence Vining and the final chapter that provides the solution, I can’t think of a single thing that actually mattered in terms of solving the case. We do indeed watch a detective make the rounds interviewing a bunch of people and chasing down threads of investigation, but startlingly, none of it plays into the solution. You could seriously skip immediately from the murder to the solution and you’d miss nothing – you’d have all of the context to understand what happened.
John @ Pretty Sinister: Most impressive to me was discovering how meticulous the murder was planned. Not only was the deed itself thought out to the last detail, but all variations of the “impossibility” being ruined by unexpected tube passengers, ill timing of the elevators, absence of the lift man who opens the elevator doors, etc. were all taken into consideration so that the actual murder would only take place in the presence of two specific witnesses and no one else. If anything occurred to prevent this from happening the plan would be abandoned. It’s truly a bravura performance on the part of Thomas.
Patrick @ At the Scene of the Crime: [A]lthough the book’s plot is fine, it tends to sag in the second act when we go through routine with same-old-same-old characters—and while there is some satire, it’s largely confined to the beginning of the book and isn’t the laugh-out-loud type of parody.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: Yeah, The Death of Laurence Vining definitely lived up to its mythical reputation among locked room readers as an obscure masterpiece and, if you’re willing to take the good with the bad, you’ll be treated to a brilliant, innovative and cleverly subversive detective story worthy of Anthony Berkeley.