Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Art of Detection: Murder of an M.P.! (In Search of a Villain) (1927), by Robert Gore-Browne

"Have you noticed," [Lucien Clay] asked us as he bent over his packing, "that while films are quite untrue to Life, Life is very often true to films?"
    I confessed that I had not.
    "At Lincot, for instance, you might have been living inside the brain of a Hollywood movie magnate.  [Sir Arthur] Baxter would have been his beau ideal of an Old English country gentleman.  In reality he was a very average die-hard back-bencher.  Only a communist would have taken him seriously, just as he took communists seriously.  He was a precise, rather fussy man, but not to the point of murder."
    "He was a J.P.," I remarked, "and did valuable service on various boards."
    "I dare say," said Clay. who seemed to like to monopolise the conversation, "he hadn't much to do."

    "But we did not fully understand the part [X and Y] had played in the tragedy."
    "So far from fully," interrupted Clay, "that we began by arresting Rothmann."

--Murder of an M.P.! (In Search of a Villain), by Robert Gore-Browne

Read it and keep the secret of its ending!
Eight years ago I included Robert Gore-Browne's Murder of an M.P.!: A Study of Detection on a list of my favorite Golden Age detective novels.  The novel was highly praised in their Catalogue of Crime by Golden Age detective fiction authorities Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, who quoted the second passage above ("so far from fully") as one of the "gems" of mystery literature.

With all the reprinting going on of late, I thought to myself, why not become an advocate here for this title?  Cause it's a damn good detective novel, as I see it.

Robert Gore-Browne's mystery, which was published in 1927 by Collins (as well as in the US, under the title In Search of a Villain and by Robert Gore-Brown, with no "e" on the end), introduces as amateur sleuth the arrogant and bibulous artist Lucien Clay, who appears not only here but in Death on Delivery, which was published in the US and UK two years later (in the US under the title By Way of Confession). The latter novel, unfortunately from my perspective, is more of a thriller.  Also appearing in both books is mild and phlegmatic Scotland Yard policeman Inspector Heppel, one of the more credible English coppers from the period.

The other key character in Murder of an M.P.! is Lucien Clay's "Watson" (or might I say his "Hastings"), a rather stolid London stockbroker by the name of Dale.  He and Clay first meet in the opening chapter of the novel on a nasty night in Soho at a thinly-populated Italian restaurant.  The conservative Dale at first dismisses Clay as a "dissolute Bohemian," but he soon realizes that the huge, red-bearded artist has a keen eye not only for painting subjects but for murder suspects. 

Clay, who boasts that the "Clays are the oldest family in Kent," is given to airy dismissals of tradesmen and middle class morality and he makes the occasional "humorous" remark about Jews that was then fashionable in the pages of other Golden Age mysteries, including those from novels by greats like Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie and Anthony Berkeley.  I find him an outsize, though perfectly believable, character from his time.  He makes a memorable, if not always likable, Great Detective figure.

At the restaurant Dale and Clay get into a discussion about the police and Clay proves exceedingly dismissive of the mental capacities boys in blue, including even his friend Inspector Heppel, who is also at the restaurant.  Heppel has tailed there a murder suspect, a pale unshaven Russian-born Jew named Max Rothmann, who had been arrested for inciting violence during the General Strike of 1926, which set many in the middle class against left-wing "radicals." Dale distastefully compares Rothmann in physical appearance to a suet pudding, "if a suet pudding can be imagined that needs a shave before dinner."

Clay insists that policeman, being of middle class origin, cannot understand murder cases that are out of the common rut.  The "perfect sleuth must be well bred," he airily pronounces (like himself).

Clay tells Heppel and Dale that Rothmann cannot possibly be guilty, from a psychological standpoint, of the crime of which he is accused: the dastardly murder, in the locked library of his country house, Lincot, of Sir Arthur Baxter, a conservative member of parliament known for his leadership of "the movement 'to turn out the Reds.'

Shortly before midnight on the night of the murder, the Lincot butler, Freeman, discovered Sir Arthur dead in his library.  He had been fatally stabbed in the back with a bayonet--a Russian bayonet from the Battle of Balaclava--that had been mounted on the wall.

from one field of death to another

Rothmann was known to have been admitted to see Sir Arthur Baxter in his library shortly before Sir Arthur's death (an odd circumstance in itself).  The radical leftist left by the French window to the terrace, leaving the doors to the library locked.  The terrace flower and gravel beds show that on the evening of the murder no one entered the house by means of the French window, and the other windows and doors to the house were locked in the evening.  So if it wasn't Rothmann who killed Sir Arthur, as Lucien Clay declares ("Trust a bobby to down on a Dago," he sneers), the killer seemingly had to have been someone who came from inside the house itself.  These individuals are, aside from the minor servants (who alibi each other):

*Sir Arthur's nephew, John ("I refused to believe that a young fellow of one's own class, outlook, and upbringing, could murder an old, unarmed man who was his near relation and who had shown him every kindness," declares Dale loyally.)
*His cousin and unpaid housekeeper, Sophie de Manca (Young Sophie Baxter married a purportedly wealthy Portuguese count, who died in the African colonies, pronounces Clay, of "gin aggravated by malaria" and left his widow only worthless shares in a gold mine, throwing her on her cousin's benevolence.)
*His lovely young typist and adopted daughter, Delia Eyre ("Typed his speeches about the Red Peril and the Hand of Moscow," explains Heppel.)
*His plump and platitudinous private secretary, Lewis Hope
*His butler, Freeman (He insists "on putting out a clean collar...every day," complains Clay.  "Face like a cod.")  But then butler never really do it--do they?

Then there's the mysterious American who was hanging around Lincot (you knew there would be one), who claims to to be a newspaperman, but is he really?

This has all the ingredients, masterfully blended, of classic English mystery from the High Golden Age: country houses, a floor plan. a knight, a butler, a body in a library, a pretty girl, scheming adventuresses, unwashed Russian Communists, quirky Americans, General Strike references, gratuitous potshots at any non-English nationality/ethnicity (tongue-in-cheek, I think), a brilliant and condescending amateur sleuth, his idiot friend (Dale really is like Christie's Hastings), a murder weapon taken from a trophy wall and an audacious but fairly clued murder.  And the writing is rather bright and witty for the period.  Maybe I'm asking for trouble with this pronouncement, but I can't imagine any fan of classic English crime not liking this one (if you can get past occasional indelicate comments from some characters).

So who was the author, Robert Gore-Browne?  More coming on him in the next post!


  1. I've been expecting this post for years now. Somewhere else in the digital airspace (Mystery*File?) you called this one of the best mysteries of the 1920s. On that recommendation I tried to read this several years ago but couldn't get past the first chapter. But I was probably in a bad mood. I may try one more time...

    1. I figure I would set myself up by praising it highly, lol. It just seems such an archetypal book for the period. And the mystery is well put together, I think.

  2. You are performing a great service with your historical and bibliographical explorations of forgotten GAD authors and titles, Curt. I've been greatly enjoying your recent true crime and genealogy posts as well. As for Robert Gore-Browne, intriguingly both of the titles are available through my college's interlibrary loan system in U.S. first editions (In Search of a Villain and By Way of Confession). I will put Murder of an M.P.!/Villain in my queue, but I will confess (by the way) that it won't be tackled until after the New Year has begun. Just too many titles in my TBR pile, including a couple more Q. Patrick books gleaned from your website! Cheers --