Reviewed by Kirsty Gibson
I love a good detective story, especially one by an author I haven’t read before. I’ve been looking out for a book by Cecil John Street (who also wrote under the pseudonyms John Rhode, Miles Burton, and Cecil Waye – what a lot of names!) for a while now, so was thrilled when Simon gave me another British Library Crime Classic to read: Death in the Tunnel, written as Miles Burton.
The story begins when Sir Wilfred Saxonby, head of a family business and county magistrate, is found dead in a railway carriage. It appears to be a clear-cut case of suicide: he was shot by a gun bearing his initials; he’d sent his relatives and closest colleagues away for the day; and the door was locked from the inside. No one seems to have a motive to murder him but, because of his position, Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard is called in to investigate. Fortunately for Sir Wilfred (and for us, or it would be a very short book), Arnold suspects foul play. As he explains to the local police constable:
“Do you know, I’m never quite easy in my mind about locked doors, especially when they are railway carriage doors. You know what a simple thing the key of these locks is […] before we can dismiss this affair as a case of suicide, we’ve got to think out all the possibilities”.
And thinking out all the possibilities is exactly what he does. Puzzled by the mystery, he calls in his friend Desmond Merrion, an amateur criminologist who applies his imagination to piece together the crime. As a method of detecting, I found the emphasis on imaginative theory rather than observation a little unusual at first. Merrion and Arnold take characters’ accounts as verbatim truth for the most part, and aren’t overly concerned with interviewing Sir Wilfred’s relatives (it’s a good few days before they meet his unhappily-married son-in-law, and no one seems particularly fussed that he was in the country when Sir Wilfred died, despite the fact that he was meant to be in France). There is plenty of good old-fashioned investigating in tunnels and country lanes and such, but these are often to prove a theory rather than find out why. When Arnold summarises the crime:
Merrion laughed […] “Doesn’t all this show the difficulty of forming any plausible theory to account for Saxonby being murdered?”
“I’ve felt that all along. But I’m bound to think of every possibility, no matter how remote.”
“Of course you are. Well, let’s see what possibilities there are. We’ll assume that Saxonby was shot while the train was passing through the tunnel.”
I sometimes find howdunnits rather tedious and report-like, especially when they’re based on assumptions to fit a theory, but Death in the Tunnel was really refreshing to read. Although we learn surprisingly little about Sir Wilfred’s character and his family, Burton’s writing is clear and enjoyable. His detectives have no particular traits or fancies but are intelligent, reliable, and human, and even the murderer is relatively likeable.
And talking of the murderer… I found that even though I thought I’d worked out how it was done, I had very little idea who had done it – and there was an interesting twist when it came to the how, too (but no spoilers!). The ending isn’t a grand revelation, but it is clever and conclusive. Although it wasn’t at all what I expected, I really enjoyed Death in the Tunnel. It’s refreshing and not too serious, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone looking for something a little bit different while still being Golden Age through-and-through.
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Miles Burton, Death in the Tunnel (British Library, 2016). 978-0712356411, 256pp., paperback.
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