The expertly-curated British Library Crime Classics series continues to diversify with crowd-pleasing reissues of Anthony Berkeley, Christianna Brand, and John Dickson Carr, never-heard-of-em delights like Family Matters (1933) by Anthony Rolls and Death of Anton (1936) by Alan Melville, and stirring in a Freeman Wills Crofts or a few E.C.R. Loracs along the way. And The Mysterious Mr. Badman (1934) by W.F. Harvey definitely falls into the middle category, because ask 100 people if they’d heard of it before this reissue and maybe three would say they had, two of whom would be lying to look cool. But a delight it is, and welcome it most certainly is.
It’s light fare — anything with characters called Euphemia Upstart, Kitchener Lilywhite, and Neville Monkbarns isn’t going to be read entirely in earnest — but Harvey has written something here which is surprisingly hard to pigeon-hole, wherein lies a fair amount of its appeal. Essentially springing out of three men trying to buy a copy of The Life and Death of Mr. Badman (1680) by John Bunyan (surprisingly to this reader, a real book…!) and the curiosity this rouses in the holidaying blanket manufacturer Athelstan Digby, Harvey’s tale is mixed from one part the playful wit of Edmund Crispin, one part the episodic adventuring of John Buchan, two parts Walter S. Masterman‘s loose tales of intrigue, and three parts classic pulp stories in its almost schoolboyishly innocent thrills.
The book is at its most openly witty in the first third or so, with lovely character descriptions like Miss Stillwinter as “a little birdlike creature, who hopped about from one topic of conversation to another, pecking shyly for crumbs of information” or the staunchly sola fide Christian Gladys Cornaby who believes a reproduction of the Mona Lisa to be “the portrait of a Popish saint laughing at Protestants”. Equally, the milieu is rendered in increasingly charming hues with asides like:
“Plumbers in our part of the world, you must know, have no use for telephones. News of a burst pipe must be broken to them very gently, usually at second or third hand.”
Which is not to say that Harvey’s joy completely dries up once the plot gets moving — witness the late coaching of an accomplice of the villains in the manner of an impersonation — but more that the plot we follow, concerning the highest reaches of government in a suitably unlikely manner, is thin enough really only to support itself and little more. Thrills are had, and just about everyone gets kidnapped and held against their will at some point, but we’re mostly swept up in a very simple, very linear events of such trifling non-complexity that our hero has time to demand the fastest car in town in order to race somewhere urgently…and then sit down to a light supper of “two eggs lightly boiled, some tea and bread and butter” before heading into the climax.
The whole thing is, for want of a better word, fun, and almost so light that you could easily breeze past the few aspects of plotting which are actually pretty decent: the sub-Humdrum detection surrounding the murder which gets the plot proper going, the split infinitive which enables a moderately clever piece of misdirection, the ultimate ruse by which our villain intends to ruin the Home Secretary. Nothing here will live in the memory very long, and it’s quite unlike anything else I’ve read from this series, but the late-middle-aged Digby is good value, and his younger helpers — nephew Jim Pickering and Diana Conyers, stepdaughter of the bedevilled politician at the centre of the mess — nip about with a BYT energy that’s difficult to suppress and harder to resent.
If I were to liken this to another book, or if you’re a reader who enjoyed this looking for more of the same, I’d probably single out Cut and Run (1941) by Martin Tanner for its similar blend of canny plotting, charming villains, and moderate peril that’s entertaining without ever raising the pulse or taxing the brain. I can’t say this has left me itching to read more of Harvey’s criminous tales, but I’m grateful to the British Library for reprinting it in the first place and for providing a review copy for my not inconsiderable enjoyment.
John @ Pretty Sinister: Mr. Digby is joined in his amateur sleuthing by his nephew Jim and Sir Richard’s stepdaughter Diana Conyers who was the person who gave the books to the boy to sell in the first place. Together the three of them uncover an extortion plot, some political machinations, and one of those familiar unctuous gentleman villains so popular in thrillers of this era. Harvey combines some excellent detection with the usual tropes of the pursuit thriller. Mr. Digby puzzles out the method and motive for the murder based on the hairs of a mountain goat, some wood shavings and a missing sleeping bag! How’s that for some amateur detective work?
3 thoughts on “#1052: The Mysterious Mr. Badman (1934) by W.F. Harvey”
Definitely never heard of it before. But definitely now going on the list. Thank you for your service – keep it up 😁
I too found this an elegant and well written book. I bet a lot of your readers will know the film ” The Beast with Five Fingers” though….a brilliant film ..and a very talented writer. Hats off again to BLCC.
I have you to blame for sending me down a wikipedia rabbit hole on the writings of John Bunyan…