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.
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: