‘Murder, without cause, by a madman with his wits astray, monstrous, terrible….’

September 8, 2017 at 6:58 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

Here’s the quotation in its entirety:

Murder, without cause, by a madman with his wits astray, monstrous, terrible, fascinated and filled them with an irrational and panic fear. It let loose the Devil among them, and people still believed in the Devil. He struck only here and  there, but threatened all alike, for once he got the upper hand of law, order and all good things, he might regain the world, and use it for his ancient purposes.

No wonder they call it the Eastrepps Evil…. 

I haven’t been blogging for a couple of days. I have  been reading instead. In a mesmerized fashion. Compulsively. Until positively bleary-eyed.

These days, I tend to read several titles at the same time. Invariably one is crime fiction, usually another is nonfiction. Perhaps there’s another fiction title thrown in, often a collection of short stories such as Tessa Hadley’s recent outstanding Bad Dreams. But from time to time, I am so thoroughly grabbed by one particular book that other reading gets elbowed aside.

Thus it has been with Death Walks in Eastrepps .

The author’s name, given as Francis Beeding, actually served as a pseudonym for John Leslie Palmer  and Hilary Aidan St. George Saunders. These two collaborated on a series of crime novels published  between 1925 and 1946. Death Walks in Eastrepps  was the tenth; twenty-two more followed.

Published in 1931, this novel seems at first to be the story of a serial killer let loose in the placid seaside town of Eastrepps. One murder after another has residents terrified. Tourists flee, understandably spooked. The local police are baffled. Obviously additional expertise is needed; soon Chief Inspector Wilkins of Scotland Yard is  called to the scene to offer what aid he can.

The denizens of Eastrepps are rendered with exceptional clarity. The reader comes quickly to care about them as individuals, and to worry for their safety. An atmosphere of dread hangs over the bewildered little hamlet; you as the reader become party to that pervasive fear. And while all of these  seemingly senseless things are happening, a poignant and secret love story is unfolding.

There’s some exceptional writing in this novel. One of my favorite passages is this description of a garden and its owner’s pleasure in it:

Mrs. Dampier finished her coffee, and, rising from her chair in the summer-house, began to walk slowly towards her roses. They were drooping a little in the heat…But they were very lovely, a superb mass of blossom, banked for twenty feet from the edge of the lawn to the top of the pergola that ran behind. Here in her garden beauty was caught in a net of shining petals, and to guard against unlovely invasions, the lilies and lupins stood about like sentinels, with the tall hollyhocks stiff as grenadiers towards the gate. To her right shone ever so faintly a still pool, with little newts and tiny Japanese fish that darted silently about their business in the cool depths. And beyond the pool was a gracious company of trees.

As riveting a read as Death Walks in Eastrepps was for me, it must be admitted that the novel contains two disparaging references. First, an emotionally  disturbed individual is called a “degenerate.” Then a wandering group of players called minstrels are said to blacken their faces when they perform;  at one point, the “n” word is used as an adjective to describe their appearance. Yes, I know we must take into account the times – the 1930s, in this case – when terms such as these were likely considered less unacceptable than they are now. Still, when confronted with usages of this sort, I’m disconcerted and pulled momentarily out of the narrative. Unfortunately, this is a problem one encounters from time to time when reading the literature of a different era.

The edition of this novel that I read was published by W.W. Norton & Company in 1966. It features a short introduction by Vincent Starrett. Starrett opens by quoting Ellery Queen on the question of what makes a great crime novel. Queen believes the answer is retrospective in nature:

“….if, years and years later, you still have a vivid recollection of the original impact; if the significance of the story, its point, or its subtle overtone still sticks in the pigeonhole of your mind, then surely the story has the quality of greatness.”

Starrett goes on to declare that “Death Walks in Eastrepps has remained in my memory for half a lifetime.” (If, in fact, you obtain this particular edition, I would caution you against reading Starrett’s essay first. He gives away rather too much of the plot.)

I have several people to thank for putting me on to this novel. First, it appears in The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books by Martin Edwards (more on this splendid if somewhat exasperating compendium in a subsequent post). Secondly, my friend Carol of Usual Suspects forwarded a blog post by Harriet Devine of Shiny New Books, in which Ms Devine sang the praises of Eastrepps. “There is so much to love admire here,” she enthuses. I agree, though my own admiration is somewhat tempered by the presence of the above mentioned instances of denigration. Individual readers, I think, must make their own decisions regarding these issues. (I’ve written at greater length on this problem in a post on Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None.)

One more observation: I’ve rarely been as stumped as to the culprit’s true identity as I was while reading this book. It was positively awash in false leads and red herrings, deployed with great cunning. I arrived at the truth at about the same moment as it stood revealed to law  enforcement and to another character as well. I gasped aloud; my husband, walking by, exclaimed, “What?” It took me a  few minutes to find my voice, and tell him.

John Leslie Palmer, 1885-1944

 

Hilary Aidan St. George
Saunders,  1898-1951

 

 

 

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