WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the murderer and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What’s this book about?
The membership of the Church of Awakened Israel (in an unnamed English town) is led by the Reverend Mr. Barratt, who is on very poor terms with his wife Helen, a cold, beautiful, and aristocratic lady uninterested in the social interaction of the congregation. Helen and her snooty family are depending upon an inheritance from the 87-year-old Mrs. Alvington, Helen’s grandmother, and since she is capable of directing her funds towards the Church of Awakened Israel instead of her family, that’s been a source of great tension. Helen’s uncle has recently divorced, to the shock and horror of the religious old lady, who has darkened her door to him forever. There’s rumours buzzing around that Mr. Barratt is having an affair with one Mrs. Callis of the congregation, and both the Barratts have recently received anonymous and accusatory letters.
At the outset of chapter 2, Inspector Rufford is called in to investigate when two bodies are found in an isolated “Lover’s Lane” — Mrs. Callis and Mr. Barratt have seemingly made plans to run away together, but have apparently instead brought a suicide pact to fruition. The dogged inspector investigates thoroughly, finding many small clues in the vicinity; he determines that both were shot with the gun nearby and that the cartridge cases on the ground match that gun. (In a lovely old-fashioned touch that is now completely out of fashion, we have a diagram of the locations of the bodies, cartridge cases, and trails of footprints.) There is another murder that seems only to complicate the tangle of motives, actions, and alibis. But it takes the personal intervention of the Chief Constable, series detective Sir Clinton Driffield, to unravel the deep meanings of a list of twenty-one clues, and reveal the answers to the old criminologist’s rhyme:
“What was the crime? Who did it?
When was it done? And where?
How done? And with what motive?
Who in the deed did share?”
And quite a surprising set of answers it is too.
Why is this worth reading?
It’s always difficult to find something worthwhile to say about a book after Curtis Evans has written an introduction for it, as is the case here. His preface to the latest edition of this book, the only copy most of us will ever be able to afford to see of this formerly scarce book, gives the reader an explanation of who the author was (Alfred Walter Stewart, a brilliant professor of science), ably discusses his writing interests and the sweep of his work, and then places this particular work in complete context as to where it falls in his career. And since Evans literally wrote the book on this author, well, you know, he’s the authority.
Luckily for me, he didn’t have much to say about this one other than that it was one of the author’s final four mysteries, near the end of his life, and that it was “inspired by the notorious Hall-Mills double murder case — probably the most publicised murder case in the United States in the 1920s”. (I can say that from what little I know about the Hall-Mills case, the solution here has no relationship to the real-life case.)
So I will paraphrase Evans for the moment, who goes into great detail to convince you of something I’ll put more simply; this book is worth your time. It’s intelligent, complicated, logical, twisty, and quite enjoyable. There is a fine balance between a mystery that is too difficult for the reader to solve, and one which is too simple for the reader to avoid solving; this book straddles that line in an interesting way. For me, the most pleasant experience with a mystery is coming to a conclusion about the assignment of guilt, and being proved correct, but then learning that the author has been cleverer than I have and demonstrated that I’ve overlooked something that would have given me a more conclusive theory. I enjoyed this book for that reason, and I think there’s a very good chance you will too.
That being said, the thing that Evans’s introduction didn’t have space to delve into is the pervasive thread that runs through this novel of “social class”. I have to say this was coloured for me by reading two Conningtons one after the other; the other, Murder Will Speak (1938), has a great deal to say from the lips of an unattractive character about, essentially, the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’. I may have more to say about that volume later. But The Twenty-One Clues also has a hearty helping of class consciousness.
Here, in the third paragraph of chapter one, we have a clear statement of what’s going on with the Reverend Mr. Barrett’s wife: “Helen was a fish out of water amongst the congregation, most of whom were decent lower-middle-class people with whom she had nothing in common. Her own friends were drawn from a different social stratum, and the narrowness of the Awakened Israelites had long been irksome to her.” And a little while later in the same paragraph, Helen tells it like it is (to her uncle, in private): “They’re so frightfully narrow-minded, not like an ordinary church, somehow. And they’re not my sort. I can’t make friends amongst them. They’re not my class, and they think differently from me on almost everything one can talk about to them.”
From the modern standpoint this emphasis on and fascination with class is very disconcerting. In 2016, one does not think these things; if one thinks them, one does not comment on them, for political correctness has taught us that class distinctions (at least in the United States and for the most part in other English-speaking countries) either do not exist or must be ignored. The problem for the modern reader is that not only are these statements about the immutability and importance of class presented unchallenged, but they are omnipresent; coming from the lips of “good” characters as well as unpleasant ones.
In chapter 2, for instance, two railway workers have reported seeing the bodies, but they have not yet been discovered. The inspector asks, “Were they tramps, or that kind of people?”
“Tramps? No, they was not tramps. It’s a fair distance, but my eyes is good, an’ I knows a tramp when I sees one. They was middle-class people, by the look of ’em. Not but what their clo’es wasn’t a bit ruffled. But they looked good clo’es; no rags about ’em an’ all o’ one piece, if you see what I mean.”
Obviously an uneducated person by his speech, but by observing two face-down corpses at quite a distance from a moving train, he can tell their social class immediately and give reasons for his categorization. The doctor who examines the bodies observes that the woman is “quite good class, too, judging by her clothes, and the smell of verbena bath salts”.
And then the wonderful dullard Inspector Rufford is constantly judging the “financial status of householders from the general appearance of the streets in which they lived”. When he goes to break the news to Mr. Callis about his wife —
“Good Lord!” ejaculated Callis, evidently revolted at the idea. “Will there be an inquest?” Rufford recognized the tone. It was the old story which he had heard so often before. “An inquest? But inquests don’t have to be held on people like us, surely.”
People like us. (sigh) I could easily go on… the fine distinctions and constant reference to social class permeate every chapter of this book. Everyone is surprised to find that a teenager who steals a car is the son of someone who brings in £1000 a year, and they feel sorry for his parents. (And the 15-year-old girl whom he is seeing is “at a glance” categorized as a whore, although the character uses the word hetaira, since “he preferred euphemisms to plainer but coarser expressions …”. She’s helpful, polite, and truthful, but she’s having sex before marriage and is of a lower class, so she’s a whore. Nice.) People’s clothes and speech are said to reveal their class origins, and it is clear that everyone thinks that Mrs. Barratt has “married beneath her” and come to regret it. The interesting piece of this is that it doesn’t seem as though the author is deliberately making a point of this “class parsing” to say something about the class system, or that it in any way relates to the solution of the mystery. For this writer, the class system permeates everything he’s writing about, and it’s simply part of the background to be accepted.
For me, this was a part of the book that was hard to take. It didn’t exactly spoil my enjoyment of this clever and well-written plot. Instead it gave me a couple of different mental issues. Principal among them was, “Does this fixation on social class have anything to do with the solution of the mystery?” Well, technically, not really. It has a tiny bit to do with the motives, but not in more than a contributory way. Also I kept thinking, “Did people really think like this and talk like this?” Here, I’m on shaky ground. I recognize that GAD writers need to pack a lot of information about their characters’ backgrounds and personalities into as small a space as possible, and this may have been a kind of literary shorthand that this author felt his audience would understand. Honestly, though, on the balance of probabilities I think it’s a kind of 1941 hangover of an elderly writer’s attitudes from a bygone day. Remember that World War 2 was in full swing for the world outside this book (it is never mentioned within) and class barriers were falling like bombed-out buildings everywhere in Britain. Except if you’re in your late 60s and soon to be pretty much unable to leave your house, as this writer was at the time.
So, by and large, I think you’ll enjoy this book as I did. You may find yourself a little horrified at ideas such as that one could assign a 15-year-old girl to the category of whore simply because of her sexual availability and with whom she chooses to exercise it, but this is not the worst level of language misuse I’ve ever seen in GAD; it’s Twenty-One Clues, not Ten Little anything, so you will not be too horrified to continue. Try it, you’ll like it.
My favourite edition
Really I do like the cover of Coachwhip’s recent edition, shown at the top of this post, which is simple, graphic, and effective (and does NOT partake of many of the modern cliches about the design of GAD reprints, for which my thanks; British Library Crime Classics has a lot to answer for and will soon run out of period postcards to repurpose, I trust.) Buy your own copy here.
The true first edition from H&S is gorgeous, and quotes the little rhyme that I enjoyed so much. There isn’t one for sale on ABE Books, but the first US, VG in a VG+ jacket, is $200.
Disclosure: I get books from Coachwhip to review, but this wasn’t one of them; it was a Christmas gift. Whatever the source, I never say anything about books that I don’t really think anyways. For fans of GAD, I think Coachwhip is doing an excellent job and deserves your support.