How to explain my fascination with the work of Walter S. Masterman? The five books I’ve read so far are all written in a sprawling, loose style evoking detective fiction’s Victorian forebears — as if actually penned in the 1880s and discovered in a trunk before being published during the genre’s Golden Age — and the consequent veering of his plots should vex me immensely. And yet I keep returning to these Ramble House reprints because there’s something fascinating about Masterman’s insistence on writing books in this style despite the genre accelerating away from him. I mean, RH have published twenty-five of his novels…so he was hardly a flash in the pan.
In true ungovernable Masterman style, we begin with the sad, sad story of Jack Sefton and his younger sister, Ena. He scores the winning try in the varsity game only to immediately be wired that his father is dying, only to be told that all their inheritance is gone, only to have to move to the bungalow town of Portham-on-Sea where the holiday cottage of some friends waits untenanted and rent-free in the off-season. This all occurs in five pages, and works in part because Masterman can stir to life some wonderful descriptions that really do come out of nowhere sometimes:
[The local grocers] carried on a desperate, and fortuitous, existence during the winter months, hoping to reap a harvest in the summer. The place was now derelict, like a show when the season has finished, and the few inhabitants wandered around like the survivors of a plague.
Left alone by Jack during the days, Ena meets and befriends the mysterious Mr. Halley, and it is through this friendship that we learn of “the gruesome crime which had fallen on the village — the murder of Lord Reckavile in his castle”. In chapter three, we cut to Chief Inspector Arthur Sinclair — Masterman’s series sleuth, about whom I have read maybe five books and can tell you nothing — as he dispatches a lackey, Inspector Fletcher, to Portham to investigate Reckavile’s murder. From here, Jack and Ena become background characters to the investigation, with Fletcher going around with a distinct lack of subtlety, tact, or humour and trying to find out what might have gone on in a manner that proves an example of competence provided you’ve never read about a criminal investigation before.
A game of Late-Victorian Trope Bingo would be a busy undertaking between the covers of any Masterman book. Mysterious cottages, mysterious men, mysterious men in mysterious cottages, a gloomy mansion, mysterious secrets not shared with the reader, a man accused of a crime who promises to explain his actions in a few days and is left alone to do so, marked currency turning up in odd places, penniless young men saved from penury by the expedient of having an attractive sister…hell is empty, and all the devils are here. Reading this rather put me in mind of The Mask of the Vampire (2014, tr. 2022) by Paul Halter because of how wide Masterman casts his net and here, as there, what is drawn in has about it a fascination that is hard to deny for sheer profligacy. It anticipates a plot point from Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938) by Agatha Christie, throws out some casually brilliant ideas only for them to be immediately sniffed out as the herrings they are, and kept catching me off guard with Masterman’s penchant for dropping wonderful descriptions in the middle of passages that leave you reeling and wondering what the hell is going to happen next:
Traces of flower beds and garden plants showed through the tangle of growth, like the ruins of an old civilisation, giving the place an air of desolation.
That first visit to Reckavile castle, a moulding pile standing unloved for decades, has about it the same terrible thrill as Gideon Fell investigating the prison in Hag’s Nook (1933) by John Dickson Carr or of Henry Merrivale visiting the old execution shed in The Skeleton in the Clock (1948) by Carter Dickson — it’s creepy, unnerving, and completely wonderful (“All the stories he had ever heard of vampires and devils gathered round him.”). Elsewhere, Masterman plants seeds that pay off with a deliberate lack of fanfare — those marked notes, say — leaving the stuffed-shirt Fletcher often red-faced, unable to make headway with the comely Ena, and wondering if “the whole village [was] in league to cheat the ends of justice”.
Sure, some things fall flat, like the secret Jack is guarding and its complete non-payoff, but just as it seems things are going to run out of puff, a midway development sweeps everything aside and we get…something very different. I shall not spoil it, suffice it to say that things get rather more A Study in Scarlet (1887) by Arthur Conan Doyle than it would have been reasonable to expect — focus shifting to another set of characters, their relation to what has gone before clear from an early stage and…well, you’re better off seeing it for yourself. I shouldn’t like this, but then I’m five books deep into Masterman now and so fairly attuned to his proclivities when it comes to sudden turns in focus and intent. Ten years ago I would have thrown this book out the window, but ten years ago I was less patient with experimental conceits such as this contains, and a less interesting man as a result.
The murder of Reckavile presents as an impossible crime — a stabbing in a locked library with sealed windows, with “no secret passages or trap doors, such as one reads of in books” — and the solution will surprise very few people, but it’s nice to see Masterman attempt some Golden Age conventions in waving a couple of hilariously unsubtle clues in your face. One convention of this type of mystery is actually very well-deployed — you’ll pick up on it, but probably not realise that you’re picking up on it — and seems to allow a certain development to come out of nowhere before you realise how neatly it dovetails with everything else. Structure might not be section of Masterman’s toolbox, but patterns are, and he weaves a nice one here to pleasing effect that makes the disjointed telling much easier to bear.
What else can I tell you? Masterman is funny at times — c.f. Fletcher brought a bill after staying two nights in a hotel “which indicated by its total that piracy still ran in the blood of these people”, or a man kissing his unloved wife “if not with affection, at any rate with a satisfying thoroughness”. I also think there’s an element of comeuppance in this second half which might get lost due to the dryness of the prose: part of me felt fairly appalled at being asked to sympathise with the colossal arse who dominates this part of the book, but then…well, the more you read the more you learn and the more sense it makes. At the time of writing this, the genre had already seen some arch attempts to engender sympathy with the unsympathetic, or to take the side of a reprehensible blackguard, and Masterman is let down by his inability to acknowledge that such an approach would help here. The man’s clearly trying, but he’s trying at something that rightly more famous names would leave behind very quickly.
Honestly, I was about ready to give up on WSM after a couple of books, but these last three have shown me a side to him that makes me suspect I’m finally beginning to understand what he offers; I have a couple more on my TBR and will definitely add to the experience of this in a few months. I’m not promising to read all 25 reprints — I have a suspicion that certain of his books should be avoided, though how I’ll ever find out for sure remains to be established — but we can add Walter S. Masterman to the likes of Freeman Wills Crofts, R. Austin Freeman, Craig Rice, and Cornell Woolrich as authors who are likely to keep me (and maybe this blog) going well into my dotage. Just, y’know, give me a few years.