Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Life Imitates Art: The Body on the Pavement (1941) and Danger at My Heels (1943), by Gordon Meyrick

I have no idea why Gordon Meyrick, the younger son, as discussed in my last post, of London's between-the-wars "queen of the nightclubs" Kate Meyrick, turned to writing crime fiction around 1940, after he had passed his thirtieth birthday.  I think he may have been trained as a solicitor, like his elder brother Henry, but I am by no means certain of this.  Of course Gordon wouldn't be the first person in history to throw over an actual practical career for dreams of literary success, now would he?

Posh 3 Park Square West, Westminster
where much of the Meyrick menage congregated in the 1930s

Throughout the 1930s Gordon had resided with his unmarried sisters on Marylebone Road at 3 Park Square West, part of a most elegant row of stuccoed Regency houses designed by famed architect John Nash and completed in 1824. Before her untimely death in 1933, Kate Meyrick had lived there too.  It is said that Kate had little money at her death in 1933, having let a veritable fortune slip through her fingers, so perhaps one of her successfully married daughters owned the house (perhaps Mary, Countess of Kinnoull).

However, at the time of Gordon's death in 1943 (a decade after his mother's), he was living in tony Kensington at 16e Kensington Court, in a flat in a charming nookish Victorian-era structure modestly tucked beneath its larger neighbors. (A one-bedroom flat in this building recently was offered for sale for one and a quarter million pounds.)

windows atop 16 Kensington Court
Tragically, Gordon died in November 1943, from the impact of falling from a window. A modern relation of his observes, "whether he threw himself or fell purely by accident or because he was drunk is unknown."

In any event, Gordon was pronounced dead at St. Mary Abbot's Hospital, Kensington (the same hospital where Jimi Hendrix would be pronounced dead in 1970).

I'm not sure whether or not Gordon fell from a window in his own flat, but I suppose that this probably stands to reason.  The windows pictured above at right are the ones at the top of 16 Kensington Court, the floor where Gordon's flat there may well have been located.

Of course as an inveterate reader of detective novels, when I read of Gordon's death I thought not merely of accident or suicide, but also of murder.  In an odd coincidence, Gordon's second detective novel, The Body on the Pavement (originally published in 1941 or 1942, not too long before Gordon's death), concerns, as the title suggests, the mysterious death of a man who falls from--or is he pushed?--the roof of Harcourt Court, a posh block of flats.

In the early 1940s, up until his death, Gordon Meyrick lived 16 Kensington Court (center)

Thus is presented another case for Scotland Yard detective Rex Haig, who is handsome, expensively educated, relentlessly humorous and rather smug.  Whether the humor or smug wins out will depend on the reader.  Perhaps reflecting the author's own social insecurities--he was educated at Harrow, but his mama had a notorious reputation as a nightclub owner arrested several times for selling liquor after hours in violation of the Defence of the Realm Act--many of the characters in the novel (Rex of course excepted) seem to be consumed with public school envy.

It soon becomes apparent that The Body on the Pavement is less a tale of detection than a mystery thriller in the manner of the late English Crime King Edgar Wallace.  In the Wallace manner, Inspector Haig realizes he is confronting a dastardly conspiracy by a criminal gang. 

Harrow School

To entertain us, the readers, there's pretty Joan Hamilton, imperiled country heiress; a small-time con named (distractedly for modern American readers) Larry King; a handsome crooked couple, representatives of "the more dubious section of London's West End population," Tony Miller and Millicent Thorpe ("And don't call me Millicent.  The name is Thelma."); Oscar Pendleton, a pansyish bachelor ("I was sitting in that chair....reading a book by Marcel Proust."); Mr. Mander, a prim lawyer with a penchant for peroxide blondes; and other assorted characters.

I enjoyed The Body on the Pavement, mainly on account of its brevity and humor.  To be sure, the plot is not particularly original, but it keeps the reader sufficiently interested for 50,000 words or so; and a mystery writer need not do more than that to entertain.

These same qualities are present in Gordon's next crime novel, Danger at My Heels, another short work of under 50,0000 words.  This tale, which might be called a pastiche of John Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) benefits from wartime detail as well as the author's familiarity with London.

another view of 16 Kensington Court

Why did Gordon, a single man in his early thirties, apparently not serve in the war?  In Danger, which is set in the Spring of 1941, the narrator of the novel, who is the age of the author at the time the novel takes place, has returned to England after eight years in a foreign country, with the hope of serving in the navy.  Certainly some aspects of the novel must have been drawn from Gordon's life:

I...found there was a good chance for the R.N.V.R. [Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve]--only it met a wait of two or three months.  So I took a quarterly tenancy of a flat in Kensington Court, on the top floor, and went into immediate possession.

At Kensington Town Hall I got a gas-mask, and from the Food Office a ration card; this entitled me to a quarter of a pound of butter, half a pound of sugar, two ounces of tea, and one and tuppence  worth of meat a week.  I dumped this lot in my new flat, and and went out to get some lunch.  I remember worrying lest a period of boredom and inactivity lay before me.  It makes me smile to think of that now.

At the pub the narrator, in a truly amazing coincidence, is taken for a near double of his, someone who had an appointment at the pub at the very same time.  And of course this near double is up to no good at all.  Soon not only the police are after our hero, Michael Stephen, but enemy spies too.  The only thing for Michael to do is--run!

As I noted above the plot of Danger at My Heels is standard flight and pursuit stuff, very similar to Buchan.  But Meyrick has a light, amusing style and the detail about wartime England in the dark days of the Blitz is interesting.  (One might have thought Meyrick's own death was related to German bombing in London, but apparently not.)

I enjoyed both of these novels enough to soldier on to another by the author: Pennyworth of Murder.  I will let you know what I think of it.  I hope to discover more detail about the man himself as well.  When he died after publishing four crime novels Gordon left an estate of just 131 pounds (about 5300 today), all to his brother Henry: a pennyworth of murder indeed!

St. Mary Abbot's Hospital, Kensington


  1. I read his occult detective short stories in THE GHOST HUNTER. Most of them contain rationalized supernatural activity which I guess I should have expected since Arnold Perry is a spiritualist debunker. Quite a few are just laughable in how cliche they are. Not at all a good book, IMO. Never been interested in reading his other detective novels. What a coincidentally bizarre death for the poor guy!

    1. Yeah, John, I knew you weren't crazy about Ghost Hunters, though you see it mentioned in sources sometimes. I have a copy too that I got years ago, and I plan to do a piece on it soon after reading it.

      I think he's certainly not an original genre writer in terms of the plots and situations, but his crime books that I have read are saved by some lightness and humor. Also the wartime detail in Danger I liked. Certainly derivative in many ways though.

      Ghost Hunters didn't get picked up for publication until four years after Meyrick's death. Was it just lost or what? I don't know. Another mystery.