WARNING: If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about not only the book under discussion, but also Philip MacDonald’s Murder Gone Mad and The Mystery of the Dead Police, and Agatha Christie’s The A.B.C. Murders, all of which are works of detective fiction where the solution is intended to be surprising. Although the solutions and the murderers are not explicitly discussed, this review will be quite informative; you may wish to preserve your ignorance of these classic works so that you will enjoy them without advance knowledge upon first reading. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What’s this book about?
As wealthy businessman Robert Eldridge embarks on the 7:15 train to the little seaside holiday town of Eastrepps, we learn a little about him from his interior monologue — not much, but enough to know that there is a secret in his past that has kept him exiled for a number of years in South America. Now he’s off for his weekly overnight visit to his married mistress Margaret.
In the next chapter, on the same date and time, we meet some residents of Eastrepps; middle-aged curmudgeon and borderline drunk Colonel Hewitt, and his unmarried sister Mary, who are sitting down to dinner. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Hewitts are broke; they lost most of their money when Anaconda Ltd. crashed. (“Broke” means that their household is down to a single incompetent servant girl.) After a tumultuous dinner in which the Colonel differs cholerically with the secretary of the golf club, the servant girl, and anything else that comes to mind, Mary goes out to take some flowers to the parish church. On her return, she stops in to spend a moment in the lovely garden of her wealthier friend, Mrs. Dampier; then turns her way towards home. She doesn’t live long enough to make it there, though.
We are then introduced to the local police who investigate her brutal murder; Inspector Protheroe, hungry for promotion, and his subordinate, the solid and stolid Sergeant Ruddock. We meet a few more locals, and hear that Mary Hewitt didn’t have an enemy in the world. Then a London reporter, Mr. Ferris, who is vacationing in Eastrepps, smells a juicy murder story. The locals are agog with the news of murder in their sleepy town, but the Honourable Alistair Rockingham, who is being nursed back to health after a nervous breakdown, is surprisingly unaffected. At the coroner’s inquest, which is meant to be adjourned while the police investigate, local fisherman John Masters announces that he has seen the killer walking in the darkened streets; a bearded man.
As the police investigation progresses, Eldridge’s mistress, Margaret Withers, is being blackmailed by her dissolute cousin Dick Coldfoot; her divorce is not yet final and if her affair is exposed, she’ll lose custody of her child. But no one else appears to know of her affair. Then as Inspector Protheroe is making his way home late one night, after a hard day of investigation, he hears what seems to be a baying hound — almost immediately, he discovers the second victim.
Young Miss Taplow is of good family and no one knows any reason why she should have been killed. The murder method is the same, and the crimes are linked; it soon seems clear that a madman is murdering almost at random when there is another murder of a local. The newspaper headlines proclaim the existence of the “Eastrepps Evil”, and Inspector Wilkins of Scotland Yard begins an investigation (to the chagrin of Inspector Protheroe).
It soon seems as though the Honourable Alistair Rockingham is crazier than anyone has known, and he’s been sneaking out at night and strolling around the village tipping his hat to passing women. The police go through a great deal of trouble to establish that he’s getting out of the house at night, and upon his arrest, he falls to his knees and starts howling like a dog. (Parenthetically, it’s interesting that this particular type of madness appears to have been restricted to fictional crazy people; I’ve never heard of it in real life.) The newspapers trumpet the idea that the Eastrepps Evil has been caught right up until, whoops, the secretary of the local golf club and the genteel Mrs. Dampier are murdered in the same way. But just as questions are being asked in the House, Sergeant Ruddock remembers Mr. Eldridge having told a little lie about his whereabouts at the time of one of the murders. Ruddock finds a clue that links the victims, in that they all lost money when Anaconda Inc. crashed — and it turns out that Eldridge is actually the promoter behind Anaconda. This makes Ruddock the hero of the Yard, to the complete discomfiture of Inspector Protheroe. Inspector Wilkins builds his case and arrests a suspect, who is taken to trial — there’s a long courtroom sequence — and executed. That would seem to be the end of the story, until Margaret Withers notices a tiny physical clue that reveals the very surprising identity of the actual killer, and a dramatic finale ensues.
I’ve written before about early precursors of what was not yet known as the “serial killer” mystery/thriller; the term “serial killer” was not yet invented in 1931. But there are a handful of mystery novels from the Golden Age, such as this, that prefigure the modern serial killer novel. Mrs. Belloc Lowndes’ The Lodger fictionalized the case of Jack the Ripper in 1913. Philip MacDonald wrote two “mad killer” novels, Murder Gone Mad (1931) and Mystery of the Dead Police (1933, with two variant titles, which I discussed here). Agatha Christie flipped the narrative in 1936’s The A.B.C. Murders. And then there is Death Walks in Eastrepps from 1931, which was considered so significant that it’s on the Haycraft-Queen list of Cornerstones. This is almost certainly the most important book Francis Beeding ever wrote; the two authors who collaborated under that name do not cut an enormous figure in the history of detective fiction, but this book’s place is assured. Anything on the Cornerstones list is worth your time automatically.
The writing style is interesting. Writers at this point in time were experimenting with different ways of telling a story, and this one is in the “multiple viewpoints” format. We get to dip briefly into the minds and lives of various people in the town of Eastrepps, including some of the murder victims. In that sense it’s like MacDonald’s Mystery of the Dead Police, which does the same thing. This volume is not quite as successful, to my mind, perhaps because the effort of recomplicating the viewpoints is not sustained throughout the entire novel. (The courtroom sequence slows the book down to a crawl and to no really useful purpose.)
Part of this reason this volume is of particular interest in tracing the development of the serial killer novel is that it’s neither fish nor fowl. I can’t go too much into detail without giving away too much about this particular volume, but at the end of the book I think you won’t be 100% clear on whether the murderer is sane or insane, and that’s actually interesting. Sometimes the murder in these early stories is completely crazy (Murder Gone Mad, for instance); sometimes the murderer is a sane person counterfeiting the actions of a crazy person for his/her own purposes. That’s what I meant above by “flipping the narrative”. It only took five years from Murder Gone Mad for Agatha Christie to realize that you could subvert the premise and generate a very clever mystery plot such that a clever killer would mislead the police into thinking they were looking for an insane person.
In this volume, though, it wasn’t really clear to me whether the author was suggesting that either (a) Eldridge, who is tried and executed for the crime at about the three-quarters point, and/or (b) the person who actually committed the murders, is insane. There’s a school of thought that says that any person who murders another, let alone four or five, is insane. I’m not qualified to say whether that’s true or not. The courtroom sequence seems to be implicitly assuming that Eldridge has a reason to murder people whom he ruined financially many years ago; I don’t understand it, but there is also no suggestion that he’s killing them because he’s insane. Nevertheless there is no need to prove motive. The link between Eldridge and the victims seems to be sufficient for the judge and jury.
The actual murderer seems very calm and cool and collected when in the process of confessing the crimes; not crazy at all. The part that is especially rational, though, is the deliberate way in which the evidence is planted on Eldridge. The murderer doesn’t have any personal animus against any of the victims; that’s irrational. I don’t want to be specific about the reason the murderer gives for committing the crimes, but — well, it’s sort of rational and sort of irrational. It actually makes a certain amount of sense, but it’s rather like using an elephant gun to kill a flea. So I think whether or not this is a “mad killer” novel is rather up to the reader. The novel says what it says, and what you make of it is up to you.
There is a “trick” — a surprise, or “reveal” — underlying this book that I shouldn’t reveal because it will completely spoil your enjoyment. I have to say, though, that the history of detective fiction is filled with firsts; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the first detective novel to work its particular trick on the reader, as are Murder on the Orient Express and The Crooked Hinge and The Judas Window and, well, just about every John Dickson Carr novel. There’s a long-standing tradition in detective fiction that writers do not repeat a trick that was first used by another writers. Well, I’ve certainly read a couple of more modern mysteries that use this trick quite effectively, in different contexts, etc. But this is to my knowledge the first time this trick was used, and in 1931, this must have been an astonishingly creative piece of work. It’s clearly the reason why this is a Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone volume. The modern reader may not be quite as surprised by this ending as the reader of 1931, but you will certainly understand why 1931’s reader was gobsmacked. Given the somewhat different social contexts, 1931’s reader would have been aghast and astounded. It’s a subversive premise to underlie a piece of Golden Age detective fiction; all I can say is, it would have been a great pleasure to be a reader in 1931 who picked this book up without having heard teasing hints about it from a blogger.
The gorgeous Art Deco first US edition from Mystery League, to the left, is head and shoulders above every other edition. Beautiful colour scheme, a gorgeous piece of hand-drawn typography, and the stylized corpse below the green skull — just lovely. I’m not aware of any mass-market paperback edition; all the others I’ve seen have been just ordinary. You can have your own for about US$75 plus shipping as of today’s date from a dealer on Abebooks. It will always hold its value, because it’s a Cornerstone volume.