Friday, June 21, 2013

Humdrum Rides Again: Southern Electric Murder (1938), by Francis John Whaley

"And what a case!  It's difficult to follow it all, even when it's explained."
--Southern Electric Murder, F. J. Whaley

As the author of, you may have heard by now, Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery, I'm a man who knows humdrum like the back of my hand (by the way, those who haven't seen it yet, please check out the review of and interview about Masters over at the Past Offences blog).  And Francis John Whaley's Southern Electric Murder is definitely Humdrum!

Critic and crime writer Julian Symons meant this word more as a term of disparagement, while I  to the contrary believe it should be worn as a badge of honor.  In my view there is nothing wrong with writing a detective novel that focuses rigorously on the puzzle plot, if one does it well.  Indeed, such an emphasis seems rather charmingly quaint today, I think.

Whaley's Southern Electric Murder is more like a Freeman Wills Crofts novel than about any other book not penned by Crofts that I have read.  It concerns business malfeasance, trains and timetables, all in the classic Crofts manner.

The particular industry involved is automobiles, which also gives the novel similarity to books by Cecil John Charles Street (a great motoring enthusiast), particularly his John Rhode novels The Motor Rally Mystery (1933) and Mystery at Olympia (1935).

Victoria Station--where a journey started

The plot of Southern is absolutely dense with railway movements and times, all involving the railway line running from Victoria Station, London to Brighton, Sussex.  Particularly important are stops at Hove and Haywards Heath.  About halfway through the book, these stations will start to feel like one's Hove away from Hove, so to speak! In the second half of the book, the setting shifts to the Hog's Back, a ridge near Guildford, Surrey, which also is the setting of Freeman Wills Crofts' The Hog's Back Mystery, 1933. 

When a dead body is discovered in a compartment of a train pulling into Worthing station (west of Brighton), things soon start to pop.  The dead man, who has been shot, is Christopher Strange, one of the directors of the Jupiter Automobile Company, the most important rival to Hartman's Automobile Company.

The latter concern is run by Sir Julius Hartman, one of Britain's most prominent Jewish businessmen.  Sir Julius is known to have it in for Jupiter's because one of its directors, Colonel Evan Stonor, is a fascist sympathizer.  Hartman soon becomes a suspect in Strange's murder, as do Stonor and the third Jupiter director, the wily Frank Pendrick, who has been paying his attentions of late to Strange's lovely wife, Norah.  And don't overlook Strange's oily confidential clerk, Pratt.

But there are so many questions.  Why was Christopher Strange wearing a false beard and a cheap suit, for example?  Who was the man with the eye patch who got off at Hove?  And why did Strange make that mysterious stop at Haywards Heath?

Hove Station--where the man with the eye patch left the train
see Hove Daily Photo blog photo copyright Liz Marley 2009
See Marley's Knitting on the Green blog

Investigating the case for Scotland Yard are Inspector John Bean (I suppose in a film he could be played by Sean Bean) and Sergeant Harold Baker.  Sergeant Baker is one of those well-bred, prep school, Cambridge and Hendon Police College boys and, oh my, does Inspector Bean just hate him!  Bean is like Inspector French turned inside-out as far as temperament goes, though he shares French's passion for police routine.

Here I was also rather reminded of John Street's Superintendent Hanslet and Sergeant Jimmy Waghorn, introduced in his John Rhode series a few years earlier, though Hanslet is a much more appealing character and Street is rather less biased in favor of his posh police tec.  But the hostile Bean-Baker relationship is amusingly handled by Whaley and has definite interest.  The second half of the book takes place six months later and is largely devoted to Baker, who has been promoted.

There is also a Bulldog Drummond sort of character, an idle, independently wealthy chap named George Curtis, who is a great pal of Baker's.  At one crucial point in the novel, when everyone in the police force is lamenting that, hang it, they can't use American third degree methods on a suspected blackmailer to extract some badly needed information, Curtis comes in quite handy (for the squeamish: no beatings actually take place, though psychological abuse does).

I could have done without this Curtis character entirely.  It's interesting that Whaley is so condemnatory of fascism and racial prejudice but seems to miss the rubber hose.  Oh, well, one can't expect absolute adherence to modern values in a Golden Age detective novel!

Worthing Station--where a journey ended

My biggest complaint with the novel is that there is no map and no actual tabulated timetable.  Freeman Wills Crofts and John Street--both engineers--would never have left out these sorts of visual aids-- especially helpful, I think, if you are a poor American reader (admittedly, Whaley's novel was never reprinted in the United States).  Still, I enjoyed Southern Electric Murder a great deal.  If you are partial to plot-dense, geometrical Golden Age mysteries, this one is for you.

All aboard! Brighton Main Line

Note: for biographical information on Francis John Whaley, see my immediately previous post.


  1. Curt, My husband saw this post and thought this would be a great read. We were both wondering how you found your copy.

    1. Hi Tracy,

      This one was a U.K. dealer in train memorabilia as I recollect. I'm going to see about trying to get it reprinted.

      If you like English trains, this is definitely your sort of book!

  2. Have you considered adding your reviews, or at least a link to them, to the GAD Wiki? I think they would be an excellent addition to them.

    1. Hi Ron,

      Thanks. Do you have to be registered to use the GAD Wiki?

    2. In order to create and edit posts at the GAD Wiki you do need to be registered and then be approved. I think Jon Jermey does the approving, but there may be other with that authority. It took about three days for me to be approved when I requested access four years ago. But don't you already have a registration? There are multiple entries with your name on them like the one for INVISIBLE WEAPONS by John Rhode.

    3. John, no, I've never entered anything on the GAD Wiki.