Friday, December 19, 2014

No Man's Land: The Tin Tree (1930), by James Quince

The Tin Tree--see here for an explanation of the term--is an excellent 1930 mystery novel by James Reginald Spittal (1876-1951), who was born in Banbury, Oxfordshire and was once vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Lambeth, London. Spittal's father, John, who came from Scotland, was also a minister, and his English mother, Mary Bentley Jackson, was the daughter and sister of prominent ministers.

Evidently Spittal married in 1900 and I suspect he also witnessed martial events in France during the First World War.  The Tin Tree--Spittal's first novel, written presumably when he was in his fifties and published, like his other novels, under the pseudonym "James Quince"--has material enough about the Great War in it that one almost could classify the book as a war novel.

The 1930 Hodder & Stoughton edition of
The Tin Tree, with jacket art by Kastain,
the only edition of the novel to date
(and, yes, this toad does figure into things,
though only near the end of the story)
The Tin Tree primarily takes place in 1917-18, with an epilogue in 1929 and considerable flashback to pivotal events in 1914. (not murder at Sarajevo, but murder at the village of Pecheford Monochorum, in the English West Country)

The protagonist is Roger "Secco" Burdockshed, a lieutenant in a British artillery company serving in France ("Secco" is derived from seccotine, because Burdockshed sticks like adhesive to a problem). One day he learns that a comrade of his, Gunner Arthur Rachelson, is not the man he thought he was; and, while convalescing from a serious wound in a hospital back in England, he resolves to get to the bottom of a notorious 1914 murder case in which Rachelson had prominently figured.

Also implicated in the affair are Secco's beloved childhood friend, Lady Margaret (Peggy) Clase, and a pretty nurse with the unlikely name of Embrance Twoze, two spirited female characters limned well by this male author.

I don't want to say too much about the plot, in case you get the chance to read this novel (it's a rare book and ought to be reprinted), but I quite enjoyed it.  The war detail is interesting, giving the book an added depth, but presently we are immersed in the land of classic English village mystery, complete with country house and gentry.

There is imposture, insanity, a really gruesome murder (all this is related early on), a designing Spaniard and copious love interest, suggesting a Victorian sensation novel, yet the story is told, on the whole, with an easy charm and emotional restraint in comparison with old Victorian potboilers. There is most definitely a problem to be solved, though with all the goings-on the page-turning reader may not think to perform due diligence. Especially appealing is the double twist ending that the author contrives.

On the whole I preferred James Quince's third and final crime novel, Cassual Slaughters (1935), another village mystery, reviewed here by Martin Edwards this very same day; but that is one of my very favorite 1930s English mysteries, with fewer "thriller" elements than The Tin Tree. However, The Tin Tree too is heartily recommended to readers.  As for publishers--take note, as they say.


  1. Having just acquired this book, after very much enjoying Casual Slaughters, I'm delighted to learn that it's of a similar standard.

    1. Yes, he was a good writer--an inspiration to anyone who might want to start fiction writing in their fifties!

  2. This sounds delightful! It would be nice if reprint became available.

  3. James Quince is written about by two different people in two different countries at the same time and posted on the same day! Cue "The Twilight Zone" theme. :^D Never heard of him until today. Both this review and Martin's have me intrigued. Quince will be on my radar all next year.

    BTW -- My copy of THE FARM AT PARANAO arrived a few days ago. Took forever to get here even though the seller lives in NYC. Immediately read the first chapter and loved it. The characters are perfectly drawn, great sense of humor, and the plot is set into motion quickly. A real page turner! Can't wait to dig into it fully.

    1. John, so glad you're enjoying Kirk, I have enjoyed both the books by him that I have read quite a bit.

      With Martin's interest it wouldn't surprise me if the BL reprints him in the future.

  4. this was written by my first cousin 3 x removed! where can i read it need to get the book!!

    1. Very cool, maybe we can get his books reprinted.

    2. Very cool, maybe we can get his books reprinted.