The Secret of High Eldersham: Miles Burton (1930)

Miles Burton’s novel The Secret of High Eldersham concerns a murder that takes place in a East Anglian village pub, the Rose and Crown. The pub has an unfortunate location–it stands in “an isolated spot,” outside of the village of High Eldershaw at the end of a side road.

It was about twenty miles from Gippingford, the county town, and stood upon the old coach road running northwards. At one time it had been a favourite spot for changing horses, but with the advent of the car its popularity had departed, since it was neither imposing or romantic enough the attract the attention of the passing motorist. Further, within recent years a new main road had been built, absorbing the through traffic and reducing the old coach road to little more than a country lane. The result was that few strangers entered the portal of the Rose and Crown.

That leaves the pub relying on local trade for business, and the nearby “struggling” village which sits on the banks of the River Elder only boasts 200-300 inhabitants, mostly labourers who don’t have much in the way of disposable income to take to the pub. When the book opens, the Rose and Crown’s long time publican transfers from the Rose and Crown to the much more lucrative business at the Tower of London pub in Gippingford. The head of the brewery advertises for a new publican and accepts retired policeman, Samuel Whitehead for the position.

The Secret of High Eldersham

In spite of the fact that Whitehead is an outsider, and that alone can be a death knoll for a business in East Anglia, a region where outsiders are regarded with “distrust,” the pub continues much the same until late one night, Constable Viney, the High Eldersham village policeman, riding home on his bicycle, stops by the pub and finds Whitehead dead–stabbed to death while sitting in his chair.

The case is very hastily passed along to Scotland Yard, and Detective Inspector Young arrives to head the investigation. Before long, he calls upon his good friend, Desmond Merrion, “a bachelor of independent and very considerable means,” a man he met during the war, for advice. At first Young dismisses the idea that High Eldersham is peculiar when it comes to the area’s attitude towards strangers, but he sees something that convinces him otherwise. By not revealing Young’s observations, Burton advances the story’s interest, and soon Merrion observes the same thing–we readers don’t know what they’ve both seen, and that kept me turning the pages.

The atmosphere in the village seems friendly enough, but it’s clear that outsiders will not penetrate the close knit community

I think it’s because all the people have married among themselves for so long that they’re all sort of related like. They settle things among themselves, you’ll never hear of one of them going to law with another, or anything like that. And they don’t like outsiders coming in and interfering with their affairs.

The initial set-up is strong, and the book begins very promisingly indeed  with the murder of the publican discovered by the intrepid Constable Viney. As much as I really liked the character of Desmond Merrion (and we do get to see quite a bit of him here), the murder investigation lost itself at times. I was disappointed when the topic of witchcraft arose, and the book, ultimately, seemed torn between being a police procedural and a thriller.

Some time ago, I read Miles Burton’s Death in the Tunnel, so I looked forward to another novel by the same author. Of the two, I preferred Death in the Tunnel. The introduction from Martin Edwards gives a good overview of the author, real name, Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964) and his very prolific career. It’s easy to guess that Burton’s series character, Desmond Merrion, is an alter ego.

For two more reviews:

Cross Examining Crime

Past Offences

review copy.

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11 Comments

Filed under Burton Miles, Fiction

11 responses to “The Secret of High Eldersham: Miles Burton (1930)

  1. Shame about the investigation as this was beginning to sound very promising. Death in the Tunnel is still on my wishlist so it’s useful to know you preferred it over this one. I’ve got a couple of the John Bude BL Crime Classics on my kindle (plus an anthology of stories you reviewed a while ago) so I’ll start there.

  2. As much as I love books involving witchcraft, I’m not keen when it’s part of a mystery, so I get your disappointment. It still sounds appealing. I really need to grab one of these British Library Crime classics.
    I’m reading Lucie Whitehouse’s latest at the moment. I think you liked her last one, Before We Met.

  3. I lived in West Norwich at one point in my life. Can imagine the landscape, but I think I might pass on this. Currently reading one of Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books which stars an eleven year old girl poison expert as the sleuth. You’d hate it. (Think it might be YA but many adults love these books…well written).

  4. Even before you mentioned witchcraft I was getting a Wicker Man vibe. It sounds more like folk horror than crime, and I wonder if it would be more enjoyable read in that vein than under a crime imprint.

    Funny how the police in these stories always bring in these outsiders.

    Anyway, flawed clearly but actually quite tempting to me since I enjoy horror more than you do. Nice review Guy.

  5. I see Tunnel was also a Desmond Merrion mystery. I wonder how many crimes Mr Merrion helped solve.

  6. I wonder how many Rose and Crown pubs there are in the UK.

    Witchcraft would have put me off too. Too bad.

  7. Thanks for the mention – I think we agree on the murder investigation losing its way. At one point I’d forgotten all about it!

  8. I just finished this this morning. It is a bit cluttered isn’t it? I think it lands fairly firmly on the thriller side, and yet the police aspects are always there.

    It would make a fun, if rather far fetched, tv miniseries. A bit reliant however on coincidences at times for my taste (it’s all very well having a character comment that providence is looking out for them, but ultimately that just means the coincidences have got to a level that even the characters in the book are noticing them).

    There’s also one odd point where Merrion is in dire peril and is spared by the leader of his foes so that he can hopefully be killed a different way a little while later (giving him of course a chance to escape in the meantime). I couldn’t work out for the life of me why Merrion wasn’t killed right there and then, save that it would have rather ended the book.

    • Merrion appears a lot more in this book that in Death in the Tunnel. I thought, at first, that I was going to like The Secret of HE more, but no, I prefer Death in the Tunnel. I’m wondering if authors, of the times, struggled with making a novel pure crime or whether of not they couldn’t give up the thriller aspects as I’ve come across this now more than once from novels in this time period.

      • I think genre boundaries used to be more fluid. I suspect Burton’s readers were looking for an entertaining yarn, and if some were more thrillery and some more crimey so it went.

        Dennis Wheatley in the ’60s and ’70s used the same series characters in straight spy novels as he did in his black magic novels, with continuity between them. Readers seem to have been fine with that.

        Similarly TV crime dramas of the ’70s and ’80s might sometimes have an episode in which a ghost gives some clues or the killer is somehow implied to be supernatural or (most commonly) a psychic helps and appears to have genuine paranormal insight. If you did that in a contemporary crime drama I think people would rebel.

        Somewhere along the way I think we’ve become more purist in our genre classifications. This is crime. This is SF. This is horror. I don’t think though it was always that way, hence Eldersham which is sort of crime-gothic horror-thriller.

        • yes that genre boundary thing is probably true. It can be useful and it can be a negative. I’m finding these days that I like my crime novels to be more than just genre fiction-a book that offers a bit more than a lot of the crime fiction out there.
          I read Belinda Bauer’s The Shut Eye which contained psychic elements and I rather liked it. It ended up being one of the more successful elements of the novel, I thought. That may have put other people off…

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