Monday, 30 July 2012


South Wales is a part of the UK that I hardly know at all, but I'm just back from a week-end in Kidwelly, a small and rather charming town in Carmarthenshire. It's a place with a notable history, and an excellent castle that I very much enjoyed exploring on Saturday morning. The main reason for the trip, however, was that I was one of the authors invited to take part in the UK's first e-book Festival, which was held at the new and very well appointed racecourse just outside the town.

Because Kidwelly is a long way from home, I wanted to make the most of the trip,and on the way, on Friday afternoon, I called on an old friend, Bob Adey, who lives near Great Malvern, and is the world's greatest expert on locked room mysteries. Bob has collected crime fiction for many years and I could have spent days just looking at his massive and deeply impressive collection, which includes - just by way of example - a number of first editions signed by John Dickson Carr. Fascinating.

Next stop after leaving Bob was Kidwelly, where at the Red Lion Inn in the nearby village of Llandyfaelog we met up with Tim Heald, the creator of Simon Bognor - a televised detective of some years back - and a more recent series featuring Dr Tudor Cornwall. On Friday evening we also met up with Julian Ruck, his wife and Matthew, a young and enthusiastic intern who had been working on the Festival for some months. Julian Ruck is a lawyer turned writer who had come up with the idea of an ebook festival in his home town, and devised a very ambitious programme indeed. During the course of the week-end, I also met Anthony, in charge of Festival publicity, who turned out to have been a journalist who interviewed me a few years ago when he was working on The Northwich Chronicle. It's a small world.

Although Tim and I were the only two crime writers at the Festival (Edna Jones, aka Clare Dawson, was there as a visitor), there were a good many other authors working in fact and fiction, covering a wide range of subjects and genres, who were also in attendance over the week-end. Among them,it was a particular pleasure to meet the prolific children's author Adele Geras, who also happens to be the mother of best-selling crime writer Sophie Hannah. Tim and I did joint events on both Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning. The picture of Tim was taken in the sunny back garden of the Red Lion before we had a meal together on Saturday night. And suffice to say that there was plenty of opportunity for entertaining conversations during the course of a truly memorable week-end. 

Friday, 27 July 2012

Forgotten Book - A Minor Operation

My Forgotten Book for today is a 1937 story from the pen of J.J.Connington. A Minor Operation features his usual Holmes-Watson pairing, Sir Clinton Driffiled and Squire Wendover, but they don’t make an appearance until the scene has been set in a series of chapters featuring the misadventures of the Adeney family.

Nicholas Adeney has been released from prison. He worked in the family business with the husband of his sister, Hazel Deerhurst. Deerhurst was a rogue who, having wrecked the Adeney family business through fraud, is also just about to leave prison. Hazel makes it clear to Nicholas that she is determined to end the marriage – which he is very pleased about. But they realise that this will be easier said than done. Hazel, unlike her brother, retains a good private income; this makes it slightly surprising that she should work as a secretary to a gifted inventor, but the seasoned mystery reader assumes that an invention may have some relevance to the story.

Driffield comes on to the scene when Hazel goes missing in mysterious circumstances. At about the same time, her husband is found to have been murdered. Nicholas is the prime suspect, but he has an alibi. Another ex-convict is also hanging around suspiciously. And what about the rather enigmatic lawyer who behaves so unprofessionally.

A mysterious machine found at her home, some paintings and a cryptic telegram are among the clues in an enjoyable mystery. You do have to suspend disbelief in relation to Hazel’s behaviour, and the guilty party is relatively obvious, but all the same, this is another example of Connington’s ability to put together an unusual story that kept me engaged throughout.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The World of Tim Frazer

The World of Tim Frazer was an enormously successful TV series in the early 60s, which made a a star out of Jack Hedley, who went on to become one of those actors who appeared very regularly on the small screen for the next couple of decades or so. The screenplay was written by Francis Durbridge, and the story-line was packed with his characteristic cliff-hangers.

En route to the Harrogate Festival, I started listening to the CD version which has now been produced - part of a small box set featuring all three of the Tim Frazer stories. They are read by Anthony Head, who has established himself as a very good purveyor of the twists and turns of a Durbridge plot, although at one point in this story he did seem slightly challenged by the surfeit of Yorkshire accents required for a pub scene.

The story is classic thriller material - an ordinary man is plunged into a shadowy world of secret agents and murder. Tim Frazer is an engineer whose easygoing nature veers into naivete when he takes into partnership an old mate called Harry Denston. Harry bankrupts the company and then goes missing. He summons Tim to a Yorkshire fishing village, but does not make an appearance. However, a Russian fishing vessel has been shipwrecked nearby and a Russian sailor is on the point of death when Tim sees him. Before he dies, he utters his final word: "Anya."

A sequence of unlikely events take Tim to Kent, where he visits an amiable couple to return the wife's spectacles, which he had found in Harry's car. The couple are looking after their young niece - a little girl called....Anya. The plot, needless to say, thickens from there. All this makes ideal in-car listening. If you can accept Durbridge's limitations - and I can - the story is great fun.

Monday, 23 July 2012


I am just back from a truly enjoyable trip to Harrogate, for the Theakston's Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. This is a major event in the crime calendar nowadays, and although there are not as many authors featured as at, say, Crimefest, because the focus tends to be on the big names,the organisation and profile of the week-end is genuinely impressive. Sharon Canavar and her team do an excellent job. I also seized the chance while in Yorkshire to spend quite a long time at an excellent book fair at Ilkley. Inevitably, I succumbed to the lure of buying several future Forgotten Books.

For me, the stand-out event at the Festival was "Come Die With Me", a combination of dinner and murder mystery organised by my old friend Ann Cleeves. Ann first ventured into murder mystery events quite some ago, with "The Body in the Library", which I've seen several times. Her latest mystery was geared specifically to the Harrogate Festival, while drawing on characters from her novel The Glass Room, and the connection between the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, and Agatha Chrstie, who was found there after she went missing in 1926.

The four characters in the mystery were played by N.J.Cooper, Cath Staincliffe, Jeremy Trevathon (a senior publisher with PanMacmillan) and Jon Morrison, an actor who appears as DC Kenny Lockhart in Vera. I had the pleasure of sitting between Jeremy and Jon, who were very good company, as well as terrific performers in their parts.

A nice feature of the event was PanMac's promotion of the Bello:Best of British Crime omnibus, to which I wrote an introduction, and which I mentioned here last week. It was the first time I'd seen the book in physical form: another addition to the bookshelf! Also on our table was Professor Lorna Dawson, an expert in soil science and forensics, who has helped Ann with some of her research.

After the dinner was over, there was time to celebrate with Margaret Murphy, following her CWA short story success, and to chat some more with Jon and Lorna. All very agreeable and as a result I didn't go to the quiz this year. But I bumped into Stuart MacBride, who told me something about the Specific Gravity round robin story that I hadn't realised - there's a hidden message in the final chapter, but it's very well hidden!

Friday, 20 July 2012

Forgotten Book - Middle-Class Murder

Anthony Berkeley’s famous book Malice Aforethought, with its sardonic account of a murderer’s misadventures, influenced a number of other authors, including Bruce Hamilton, whose Middle Class Murder appeared in 1936. It was known in the US as Dead Reckoning, and it’s my Forgotten Book for today.

I’m surprised that it isn’t better known, and hasn’t been reprinted more often, since it’s an accomplished and highly readable book of its type. Not as ground-breaking as Berkeley’s classic, for sure, but still genuinely entertaining. Perhaps its lack of fame owes something to the sporadic nature of Bruce Hamilton’s crime writing career. He wrote just seven mystery novels in the space of 28 years.

The story opens brilliantly, with dentist Tim Kennedy composing a fake suicide note from his disabled wife Esther. Is it a coincidence that the protagonist bears the same surname as Milward, another of Berkeley’s followers, or that the names of Berkeley and Cox (Berkeley’s real name) also feature in the story? I rather doubt it – I suspect Hamilton was giving a nod to a couple of fellow writers whom he admired, though I’m not sure whether they were friends of his.

Kennedy’s plot to kill Esther is bedevilled by all kinds of snags, but he refuses to give up, and eventually she dies. Not only is Kennedy not a suspect – he earns the sympathy of family and friends, and is free to pursue his interest in an attractive local woman. But of course, the course of murder in a book like this never runs smooth...

I really enjoyed this book the first time I read it, and enjoyed it again on a recent re-reading. It isn’t easy to find, but let’s hope someone reprints it before too long. Hamilton does not deserve to be forgotten, and nor does this book.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Bello and a Murder Omnibus

The rapid growth of print on demand and digital publishing is having the happy effect of reviving all kinds of detective novels that were, until recently, hard to find. One of the most significant entrants in the market is Bello, an arm of Pan Macmillan, and I’ve been impressed with their enthusiasm for neglected gems o the genre.

I first came across them when I was asked to write an introduction to an omnibus of three revived mysteries. It turned out to be a pleasurable task. A Game of Murder, by Francis Durbridge, was one of the novels – it happens to be a book I’ve covered in this blog, and I still remember watching the original TV series on which the novel was based. A very entertaining and twisty story.

Murder in Moscow, by Andrew Garve, illustrates that author’s deep knowledge of Russia and the Russian way of life. Garve (real name, Paul Winterton) was a journalist who visited the country in the early 30s and he wrote factual books about the place, as well as novels set there. The final book in the omnibus was Prescription for Murder, one of the long series of novels that the late David Williams wrote featuring Mark Treasure -  a likeable banker, in the days when bankers were allowed to be likeable. The omnibus is due to be launched at the Harrogate Festival this week, and I hope that, even though the focus of the Festival is naturally on contemporary crime, there will be a chance to interest readers in worthwhile writers of the past as well.

From talking to people at Bello, I’m convinced that the imprint (can a digital publisher be said to have an imprint? I guess so) will become increasingly prominent. Among the other crime novelists they are bringing back into the limelight is Josephine Bell, a writer as reliable as Garve. There are a lot of unknown, but worthwhile, books from the 20th century waiting to be rediscovered, and I’m confident that Bello will be among the leaders in making sure that happens.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Harry Devlin is back!

I’m truly thrilled to say that my early Harry Devlin books, set in Liverpool, are now enjoying a new life. They are available as ebooks, in new editions with some very special features that I hope readers will find fascinating. For me, it’s all very exciting. And the books are also being made available again, for those who prefer hard copies, in paperback editions.

Andrews UK, who specialise in ebooks and print on demand editions, have now produced six of the eight titles in this way – the whole series, that is, with the exception at present of Eve of Destruction and the much more recent Waterloo Sunset.

The most notable of the special features is that each book benefits from a brand new introduction by a leading crime writer. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky here – this original material, only available in these editions, comes from some of the most gifted and renowned of modern British writers.

CWA Gold Dagger Winner Frances Fyfield introduces my debut novel, All the Lonely People. Frances reviewed my earliest work in legal magazines (she and I, like Harry, are solicitors) and I have long felt an enormous debt of gratitude to her for her encouragement.

The same is true of Val McDermid, the CWA Diamond Dagger winner who has written a new introduction to the second book in the series, Suspicious Minds. Val reviewed one or two of the early Devlins very favourably, and her generous remarks in this new edition made me glow with pride.

I Remember You, the third book in the series, has an introduction from Margaret Murphy – the current joint winner of the CWA Short Story Dagger. Margaret is not only an old friend, but someone who knows Harry Devlin’s Liverpool  better than most.

Yesterday’s Papers, perhaps my favourite Devlin book, has an introduction from another CWA Diamond Dagger winner, Peter Lovesey. Again, Peter is a superstar of the genre who has supported me generously for many years. He and I share an enthusiasm for classic, twisty plots, and it seemed to me appropriate that this particularly elaborate mystery should include an intro from such a master of the genre.

A third CWA Diamond Dagger winner, Andrew Taylor, kindly wrote the introduction to The Devil in Disguise. This was a book I really enjoyed writing, though I remember being mortified when my original publisher didn’t care for it. As a result, I moved to Hodder, with increased sales as a result. Andrew was a Hodder author too, and we launched this book, and one of his Lydmouth titles, at the same enjoyable event in the late lamented Mysterious Press bookshop in London.

Finally, there is First Cut is the Deepest, with an introduction from Kate Ellis, twice shortlisted for the CWA Short Story Dagger.  This was the last Devlin story I wrote before taking a ten-year break, and it is also the longest and perhaps the most complex entry in the series. Kate, like Margaret, is a Liverpudlian with a deep love for Harry’s home city.

For each book, I have written a detailed new “Making of” feature, along the lines that you find in DVDs. There is also a biographical note, and an appreciation of my work which has most generously been contributed by former CWA Chair, Michael Jecks.

Each book includes a “preview chapter” for the next book in the sequence, a device that I hope will encourage people who dip into the series for the first time to return to it.

As we all know, the world of publishing is changing rapidly. With all change, there are advantages and drawbacks. But I am very optimistic that for writers like myself, who do not have massive publicity teams or budgets at their disposal, that digital publishing will help to make the books available to a new and wider readership. We shall see. One thing is for sure: it’s enormously gratifying to see these early books given a fresh life.

I can’t close this post without expressing my profound gratitude to Frances, Val, Margaret, Peter, Andrew, Kate and Michael, all of whom offered their contributions without the slightest degree of arm-twisting! (The same is true of CWA Gold Dagger winner Ann Cleeves, whose introduction to Eve of Destruction is at present unfortunately unavailable because of the frustrating and unhelpful attitude of the rights owner.) Generous people, as well as terrific writers, and I am proud to call them friends.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Case Sensitive: The Other Half Lives, episode 2 - and TV dramas' length

Case Sensitive: The Other Half Lives concluded tonight, and a lot of plot development was packed into an hour. This meant that some bits of the narrative seemed rushed – especially in the way that the two detectives got together, seemingly out of the blue. This made me wonder about the pros and cons of splitting up a crime drama like this, in two hour-long episodes, shown on successive nights, in this case a Thursday and a Friday. What is the best way of presenting a TV crime drama?

In the 1980s, the early and best days of Taggart, stories were split into three episodes, each an hour long, shown in successive weeks. This template worked extremely well for the clever and complex Glenn Chandler stories, and I was hooked time after time. For me, this remains classic TV crime.

Conversely, the rather stately place of early two-hour single story episodes of Inspector Morse had a different kind of appeal. One was drawn in by the mood of the show, as well as the story-line (and, of course, the superb acting, high-calibre screenplays, and fantastic setting.)  This model continues to work brilliantly with Lewis, and overall the Oxford-based series are my favourites in the two-hour format. I’ve also enjoyed Inspector George Gently, and Vera, which are based on the same approach.

The Case Sensitive template has been used, for instance, in the adaptations of the books of two fine writers, Peter Robinson and Mark Billingham. I’m not myself convinced, though, that the two-parter is such a great idea. Really, it’s neither one thing nor the other. The Other Half Lives was watchable, but somehow, I felt, more could have been made of Sophie Hannah’s material.

Forgotten Book - Mystery at Lynden Sands

The case of the Tichborne Claimant is a classic of impersonation and it has provided the inspiration for a host of crime stories, including today’s Forgotten Book, Mystery at Lynden Sands (1929) by J.J. Connington, a story which recreates the partnership of Sir Clinton Driffield and Squire Wendover first encountered in Murder in the Maze.

This is an enjoyable book, although I found it difficult not to be deterred by an excruciating first chapter in which a brother tediously reminds his sister of the family history, all of which she knew already, simply in order to explain the background to the reader. Including a simple family tree would have been a better option. It’s an example of how not to convey factual information in a novel.

But I was glad I persevered. This poor bit of writing aside, Connington does a very good job in creating one of his complicated fair-play murder mysteries. He makes excellent use of the seaside resort setting for purposes of the plot, although, typically, he provides diagrams of crime scenes rather than memorable descriptions. The Holmes-Watson relationship between Driffield and Wendover is nicely drawn, as are their dealings with the local cop, named Armadale (perhaps after the Wilkie Collins novel?)

One of the intriguing features of the Connington books is the sheer ruthlessness of Driffield. He is quite prepared to let a villain suffer in agony, yet in many ways he is decent and good-natured. His focus is, above all, on evidence, and this reflects Connington’s scientific training. He focuses on facts, like emotions. But despite this touch of coldness, Connington was definitely one of the more interesting writers of the Golden Age.

Case Sensitive: The Other Half Lives

Case Sensitive: How the Other Half Lives is a two-part series based on a book by Sophie Hannah that I haven’t read. Nor did I see the first Case Sensitive series, which hit the screens last year – somehow, I missed it completely. But I rather enjoyed the first part of this story, although I suspect the novel has many more layers of complexity.

Charlie and Simon, Hannah’s series cops, are played by Olivia Williams and Darren Boyd, who don’t correspond with my mental impression of the characters. All the same, Olivia Williams did impress me;  she is a very good actor. Boyd’s role was subordinate, and it’s too soon for me to judge his performance.

The story concerns a very attractive acquaintance of Charlie’s, played by Eva Birthistle, who leaves her husband for an enigmatic piano tuner called Aiden. He confides that he once hurt a woman, but annoyingly refuses to divulge more. Even more infuriatingly, he then complains that his lover should “trust” him, though one is tempted to respond that trust is a two-way thing.

When the woman’s husband is found murdered, Aiden is the obvious suspect, but by the end of this episode, she was in the frame. I expect more twists, and I shall certainly be tuning in to find out what happens. I’m a fan of Hannah’s work and I hope that the two programmes, taken together, do justice to a writer who combines psychological insight with a flair for plot.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Events with Fellow Writers

This has been such a horrible “summer” so far in Britain that I had dark forebodings about a barbecue and crime event organised by the tireless Tony Higginson of Formby Books for last Thursday. Yet- miracle of miracles – the evening was sunny and I have the photos to prove it! They were taken by fellow crime writer Ron Ellis, and the photo above also shows June Francis, a prolific and successful writer of Liverpool sagas who has been a friend of mine for many years.

My fellow speakers were Stephen Booth and Frances Brody. Stephen’s Peak District series about the youngish cops Cooper and Fry has achieved a very loyal following. Frances is, in comparison, a newcomer to the scene, but her historical mysteries featuring Kate Shackleton are also making a real impact and this year she was long-listed for the CWA Dagger in the Library.

On Monday of last week, I did an event with Mike Walters at Moreton Library in Wirral. I used to live in Moreton in the 80s, and was a member of the library. This was around the time I started writing my first novel, All the Lonely People. It was fascinating to go back. And I enjoyed the gig enormously – Mike and I did it as a conversation, and although (or because?) we hadn’t planned it in detail, it seemed to go really well. Mike is an interesting writer whose latest books are written under the name Alex Walters. His earlier work is set in Mongolia, and is also well worth a look.

I rather like joint events with other writers, and over the years I’ve done a great many of them. Different pairings have different dynamics, but I honestly can’t think of any writer with whom I’ve done an event in the past with whom I wouldn’t be happy to do another in the future. I can think of a couple of cases where two fellow panel members haven’t really hit it off with each other, but even that is very unusual. Perhaps it shows that writers are more collegiate souls than their solitary occupation might suggest?

Monday, 9 July 2012

Short Stories and the CWA Dagger

I wasn’t able to attend the CWA Dagger Awards last Thursday, for pleasant reasons I’ll describe in my next post. I was, however, thrilled to learn that the CWA Short Story Dagger was shared between Cath Staincliffe and Margaret Murphy for their stories from our Murder Squad anthology, Best Eaten Cold and Other Stories, published by The Mystery Press.

Over the years, I’ve had the great fortune to edit books in which a good many stories have appeared which went on to be shortlisted, and quite often to win, awards both here and overseas. This year was, though, the first time that four stories appearing in books I’d edited had featured on the same shortlist. Very nice to get a bit of vicarious glory, and even nicer to have a hand in bringing some fine stories to the attention of readers.

It isn’t easy to persuade publishers to take short stories or anthologies. They do not often sell well. I’m not really sure why. It has never been easy – it’s not just a new phenomenon. And at least the internet is making some short stories more accessible than ever before.

A final word about Murder Squad. The group came into being back in 2000, and despite a few personnel changes, remains highly cohesive. I’m glad to be associated with writers of distinction who also happen to be, without exception, delightful people.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Forgotten Book - The Public School Murder

R.C. Woodthorpe was a pretty successful author in the 1930s, and his best known novel, which I have in a green Penguin edition, is my Forgotten Book for today. This is The Public School Murder, and its school setting, Polchester, is evidently based on Christ’s Hospital, where Woodthorpe taught in the Twenties before going into journalism.

The story is agreeably written, and it makes a virtue of the public school ethos, about which views are probably as divided today as they were in the Golden Age. Much of the tale is told from the viewpoint of one of the teachers, although it is the head of the governing body of the school who eventually acts as amateur detective and comes up with a solution to the mystery of how Polchester’s headmaster died.

I’ve never read anything else by Woodthorpe, but I would like to do so. The trouble is that his books are now rather elusive – it would be good if someone could bring them back into print.  However, very little information seems to be available about Woodthorpe, and such detection work as I’ve been able to do has been rather poignant.

His full name was Ralph Carter Woodthorpe, and he lived until 1971. But he gave up writing following the outbreak of the war, and soon his reputation became shrouded in obscurity. He was a good enough writer to have been elected to the Detection Club in 1935 – yet his name is nowadays not even included on the list of the Club’s past members! Very sad, but at least I can do my best to put that right. He doesn’t deserve to be so neglected, but it’s sobering to be reminded yet again of the transience of success.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Desmond Cory

I’ve written previously on this blog about Desmond Cory, an extremely interesting crime novelist of the recent past. He wrote, among other things, that most unusual novel Bennett and Deadfall, which was filmed with Michael Caine, and a great John Barry score.

Cory is one of those writers in whom interest is reviving, I’m glad to say. (Another of roughly similar vintage is Andrew Garve, and I’ll talk more about him in the future.) Those excellent print on demand publishers Ostara have reissued Undertow, which is one of their series of “Top Notch Thrillers”, and this is yet another illustration of the way p.o.d., as well as digital publishing is making good books widely available again after too long a gap.

Cory’s real name was Shaun MacCarthy, and through writing about him, I’ve come into contact with his son Richard, who is doing sterling work in preserving his father’s literary legacy. He tells me, by the way, that Cory wasn’t a fan of the film made of Deadfall, but I hope he did at least like the music!

Richard kindly drew to my attention  to On the Gulf, now available for download on Amazon Kindle. This is a thriller set in the imaginary – but entirely credible – Middle Eastern state of Fariq. As is often the case with Cory’s work, the focus is not just on action, but also on psychological insight into the characters. Definitely worth a look.

I’m pleased to see that Cory’s early work is also becoming available for download. An example – which I have not read as yet, but intend to – is his second book, Begin, Murderer! in which private eye Lindsey Grey investigates a series of murders. There’s something a bit different about Cory, a quirkiness as well as an interest in people under pressure – often in exotic places – which marked him out from the crowd and makes his work well worth discovering, or rediscovering.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Specific Gravity

Round-robin mysteries have featured several times on this blog, and I’ve mentioned that I find them rather fascinating. I shall have more news before long of an interesting reprint that I’m involved with, but in the meantime, I’m delighted to say that the first collaborative mystery that I’ve been involved with is now available.

It came into existence through an initiative of the lovely people who run the  Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Fiction Festival at Harrogate each year. This has become a major event for fans, and regularly features a host of international best-sellers. So I was extremely gratified when the organisers invited me to take part in writing a chapter of Specific Gravity, a mystery broadly (and in many ways, distantly) in the tradition of The Floating Admiral.

The story was to be started and finished by Stuart MacBride, who has become a superstar of the contemporary crime novel. Other contributors were to be Laura Wilson, Natasha Cooper, Martyn Waites, Allan Guthrie, Ann Cleeves, Charlie Williams, Zoe Sharp and Dreda Say Mitchell. Very good company to be in!

This joint enterprise was all about having fun, and I approached it in that spirit. There was no advance planning – each writer did their own thing. I wrote in a different style from usual, and really enjoyed writing my chapter. But then the project went very quiet for a long time, as consideration was given as to how to promote it. Now, at last, it’s emerged – and at long last, when I get a spare moment, I shall finally find out what happened in the story after I did my bit!  

If you fancy seeing what we all made of the project, take a look at Specific Gravity . Incidentally, having enjoyed contributing this one, I’m now involved with another round-robin project, though this one will be very different. More about that in the fullness of time...

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Murder Gone Mad

Murder Gone Mad by Philip Macdonald is arguably a landmark in the crime genre. Published in 1931, it is, as far as I know, the first Golden Age serial killer novel in which there was no rational motive for the crimes.

Murder strikes in the peaceful town of Holmdale in shocking fashion, when an eleven year old boy called Lionel is stabbed to death. The police receive a message from ^The Butcher” about the crime, and this sets a pattern. A series of young people, male and female, are killed by “The Butcher”, and panic sets in.

One of Macdonald’s regular cops, the Scotland Yard man Arnold Pike, is called in to lead the investigation, but although a passing mention is made of Macdonald’s amateur sleuth Colonel Anthony Gethryn, Gethryn does not play any part in the story.

More than 80 years after this book was published, it’s difficult to judge it fairly. The crimes are shocking, but by modern standards, naturally, the material is tame There is a surprise solution, in terms of the revelation of the culprit’s identity, but this is not a “fair play” mystery, and more seriously, there is no explanation of what caused the psychological collapse that led a seemingly harmless individual to commit such shocking crimes. The book is, then, a historical curiosity which may fail to satisfy most modern readers, but Macdonald was a pioneer in this field, and, for all his faults, he remains one of the more interesting writers of the 30s.