Friday, July 20, 2012

Death of a Banker (1934), by Anthony Wynne

Here's one for you locked room, or miracle problem, fans.  From the jacket flap description:

Dr. Eustace Hailey has an almost unsolvable problem in this new mystery by Anthony Wynne: Mr. Hall, international banker, is seen by fourteen persons to jump his big black horse over a five foot gate into a field, gallop onto the middle of the field and fall off.  They rush to his side and find a hunting knife protruding from between his shoulders.  It has pierced his heart and he is dead--murdered at that spot.  The knife couldn't have been part way in and then been knocked through his heart by the  fall for there is almost no blood on his clothes; it couldn't have been thrown for the nearest cover was too far away and Mr. Hall was in plain sight of fourteen witnesses.  And yet a man with a knife through his heart couldn't jump a gate and ride a horse at a gallop....

Hall could not have been murdered--yet he was!
Well, that's a pretty pickle of a problem, no question!  But Anthony Wynne also tackles another vexatious matter with this tale: that of international banking's proper role in the Depression-wracked world of the 1930s.  Yes, Death of a Banker essentially is an economic treatise dressed up as a miracle problem story.  It's rather like a cross between John Dickson Carr and John Maynard Keynes, with a right heaping dash of G. K. Chesterton. I actually found the novel pretty fascinating, though as a historian I plead guilty to having a particular interest in political and social detail from the 1930s.  I will readily admit that Death of a Banker may not have an equal payoff for everyone.

"Anthony Wynne" was a pseudonym of Robert McNair Wilson (1882-1963), a Scottish-born surgeon.  Under the Wynne pseudonym McNair Wilson wrote twenty-seven Dr. Eustace Hailey detective novels between 1925 and 1950.  Between 1925 and 1927 he also wrote a series of mystery short stories, some of which were collected in the 1927 collection Sinners Go Secretly. Many of these works revolve around miracle problems, impossible murders and such.  In fact McNair Wilson in his day was one of the leading exponents of the locked room mystery.

Robert McNair Wilson
aka Anthony Wynne
McNair Wilson also was deeply interested in economic and political issues of his day.  This interest not surprisingly deepened after the global economic depression plunged the world into what the English economist (and detective novelist!) G. D. H. Cole simply termed chaos in the 1930s.  Like many people of his day McNair Wilson put the blame for the dire state of world affairs on modern finance capitalism.  In other words he loathed the international banking system and with it international bankers!

In the 1930s McNair Wilson began publishing works of economic theory, such as Promise to Pay: An Inquiry into the Principles and Practice of that Latter-Day Magic Sometimes Called High Finance, which appeared in 1934, the same year as Death of a Banker.  During the thirties McNair Wilson became economic guru to the famous poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972), who got himself into a great deal of trouble with his embrace of Mussolini during the Second World War.  McNair Wilson and Pound kept up a quarter-century's correspondence, from 1934 to 1959.

Unlike Ezra Pound, Robert McNair Wilson never actually embraced Fascism.  Indeed, in contrast with Pound and confounding stereotypes of Golden Age English detective novelists, McNair Wilson highly praised American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal.

Ezra Pound:
a reader of Robert McNair Wilson
if not, perhaps, Anthony Wynne

Undeniably, Robert McNair Wilson was sympathetic to strong leaders endowed with sweeping powers to combat the bankers, but he approved most of Franklin Roosevelt because the American president was a democrat (small d), not a dictator.  McNair Wilson himself was a theist who idealized feudal English society as a time of honor and reciprocal obligation between rulers and people. The modern world order, in his view, had been corrupted by rootless international bankers, knowing no loyalty to the state and the people and caring only about money.

The influence of Robert McNair Wilson's political and economic preoccupations on the writing of Banker is manifest when one reads the crime novel.

After Mr. Hall, international banker, is murdered--seemingly impossibly--during a hunt in Northumberland (a favored Wynne setting), it becomes clear to Dr. Hailey--who is always pulled into to these cases by Scotland Yard, being a Great Detective and all--that Mr. Hunt was definitely Up To No Good.  Hunt was deeply enmeshed in the politics of the Baltic kingdom of Aland, which stands badly in need of a loan.

Death of a Banker even has an abducted prince
and a dastardly, dastardly villain
Much of the novel feels more like The Prisoner of Zenda (1894) than a traditional 'tec story. To appreciate Death of a Banker you must be able to tolerate lashings of Ruritanian politics and discourses on economics.  If in John Dickson Carr's The Three Coffins we get the "Locked Room Lecture," in Wynne's book we get the "International Bank Harangue."  I have a feeling I know what most fans would prefer (I prefer it myself), but I thought Wynne's approach had interest. 

Here's a taste of what you get along this rhetorical line in Death of a Banker (you can be pretty certain Dr. Hailey is an absolute stand-in for the author here):

There was a heroic quality in Dr. Hailey's mind that had made him rebel from his boyhood against the self-righteousness of the great age of Progress.  Work in one of the districts served by a teaching hospital had shown him the seamy side of financial industrialism, that system which decreed that, in the richest land on earth, women and children should lack for bread.  He had longed, in those days, for the freedom of a vanished age in which a citizen had his dignity as man and Christian.  And so, vaguely, without knowing why, he had recoiled from the achievements of applied science even while he had admired them.  Machines, it had seemed to him, were fated to make slaves of all who served them and to lay upon humanity the frightful burden of a monotony undreamed of in an earlier period.  But he had revised all these opinions as the result of his study of the banking system.  It was not the machines that were hateful but the uses to which they had been put.  The enemy was not science, but greed organized so that its strength was greater than the strength of armies.

Given events of the last few years and the rise of the Occupy movement, perhaps such passages as these might have special resonance for modern readers?  It's certainly something different from the baronets, butlers and blunt instruments of stereotypical English mystery.

But how is the actual mystery part of this mystery, you may be asking?  Well, the miracle problem is nicely done indeed.  It's something that would not shame the master, John Dickson Carr.  There's not much detection between the laying out of the problem in the beginning and the untangling of it at the end, but if you can accept the lengthy mid-course digressions on Baltic State politics and international finance, Death of a Banker is not a bad tale, all told.

Anthony Wynne has, for a mostly forgotten writer, had a surprising number of blog reviews.  Here are some:

 The Red Lady (John Norris)

The Room with the Iron Shutters (John Norris)

The Toll House Murder (Patrick Ohl)

The Green Knife (TomCat)

The Silver Scale Mystery/Murder of a Lady (TomCat)

The Case of the Gold Coins (Bill Pronzini)

Murder of a Lady/The Silver Scale Mystery (Curt Evans)

Emergency Exit (Curt Evans)

The Cyprian Bees (short story) (Arun Kumar)


  1. I also reviewed The Silver Scale Mystery, which was much better than The Green Knife (both the book and the review).

  2. Added! I was thinking you had, but didn't catch on the search.

    All in all a pretty good list I would say, for a writer oop for over half a century.


  3. Both of McNair Wilson's sons became Conservative (Republican) Members of the British Parliament. MW Senior definitely never "embraced Fascism" but he did write a pro-Socialist novel, They Want Their Wages, under the pen name Harry Colindale.

  4. Wynne is a writer who is absolutely deserving of the title "Master of the Humdrums." Most of his books are dreary and humorless. To borrow Joanne Worley's catchphrase from Laugh-in: "BO-RING!" But somehow I manage to find something interesting in nearly every one I read. The only one I never managed to finish due to its sleep inducing and high yawn factors was THE HORSEMAN OF DEATH. I have posted several more, very brief, reviews at the Golden Age Detection Wiki page for Anthony Wynne and all of the spoilers have now been removed. (Don't even go there, TomCat!) I'd say if anyone who wanted to try Wynne MYSTERY OF THE ASHES and ROOM WITH THE IRON SHUTTERS would be the books to read. I am not such a fan of THE SILVER SCALE MYSTERY as you and TomCat.

    The titles I also reviewed are: Mystery of the Ashes, Sinners Go Secretly, The Dagger, and The Blue Vesuvius. Click on the those links at the Wynne page.

  5. UNO,

    I should have mentioned that about McNair Wilson's sons both being Tory politicians. I tried to get in touch with the son still living through a grandson but never heard from him, sadly. Some of the Wynne books should be reprinted.

    I bought a copy of They Want Their Wages after learning about it from someone on the internet (you perhaps?), but have not read it yet.


    Wynne lacks the true Humdrum's devotion to scrupulous detection. There is "action" in Banker, a lot of chasing around after the prince, but the language is so formal and Victorian that I can see people finding it too starchy for their taste. But it is action. Personally, I prefer more emphasis on formal detection, in the humdrum style.

    One thing we talked about before that is so true. Wynne is a totally humorless writer. I mean totally. He makes Freeman Wills Crofts look like Sacha Baron Cohen.

    1. "He makes Freeman Wills Crofts look like Sacha Baron Cohen."


  6. Another totally humorless writer, at least in his few novels I've read, is Norman Berrow.
    Very dark.
    Berrow I do not know if he was so in everyday life, or it was only a desired effect. But to me the photo shown in recently article I placed online few minutes ago, it makes me think that he would rather "heavy", temperamentally.

  7. I have got by Anthony Wynne, The Case of the Gold Coins, "Il coltello nella schiena".
    A fine novel. If I well remember it should be a locked room, on a sandy beach.


  8. Pietro,

    I will take a look at that, have never read any Berrow. I believe he's one of Ramble House's authors?

  9. A great scholar like you, should read at least one Berrow to get an idea. Yes, he is one of the authors by Ramble House.
    The book I review in my article on my blog, has been translated in Italy for the good wishes of Mauro.