Tag Archives: Desmond Merrion

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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Filed under Burton Miles, Fiction

Death in the Tunnel: Miles Burton (1936)

“This case of yours seems to get more and more involved, the further you go.”

In Miles Burton’s 1936 novel, Death in the Tunnel, Sir Wilfred Saxonby travels home by the 5 pm. train from London’s Cannon Street to his home in Stourford. He pays the guard a pound to make sure that he is alone in his first class compartment. On the journey home, as the train enters the Blackdown Tunnel, the train driver applies the brakes after seeing a red light swinging above the tracks, but then the train picks up speed when the light changes to green. About that time, the guard stops to speak to Saxonby and finds that his passenger has been shot through the heart.

Death in the tunnel

Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard takes over the case from the local constabulary, and initially Saxonby’s death appears to be a clear cut case of suicide as a gun bearing Saxonby’s monogram is found at his feet. But there are a few aspects of the case that trouble Arnold. Where is Saxonby’s train ticket? And what about that mysterious light in the tunnel?  There were twenty-four additional passengers in the first class compartments (with the doors locked between the first and third class sections in case the riff-raff tries to crash in), and what of the mysterious, elderly twenty-fifth passenger? Although all the evidence points towards suicide, Arnold has this nagging feeling about some aspects of the case which don’t quite add up, and as he says, “Details like that have a way of mattering.”

As for Saxonby, although he “was a man of temperate, not to say frugal habits,” he was also intolerant, “respected rather than liked,” and as a magistrate may have made a number of deadly enemies. …

Death in the Tunnel is an intriguing book from the Golden Age of Detective fiction and comes recommended especially for fans of ‘train crime.’ There’s no CSI–just painstaking, logical police work, and in this book, the troubling aspects of the case are easy to grasp. Arnold has to follow the traces of the case that don’t add up, and he consults his friend, the wealthy amateur sleuth Merrion for his opinion. The two men work together and apply their various theories to the possible suicide or hypothetical murder of Saxonby.

Merrion laughed. “What I like about this case is the delicate balance of evidence,” he replied. “To begin with, there is at least as much evidence in support of the theory of suicide as there is against it.”

The relationship between Merrion and Arnold is subtly portrayed. There’s no obsequiousness on the part of Arnold, and no condescending revelations from Merrion. They see each other as peers and so treat each other accordingly with mutual respect–often dining while they discuss the case, presenting various theories and seeing how those theories hold against the clues. Even though they certainly don’t always agree, they make a good team–Merrion, for example, believes that the identification of Saxonby’s wallet is central to the case while Arnold thinks this is a trivial detail.  This case is fascinating for as Arnold pursues one clue after another, and seems to be perhaps closer to solving the mystery of Saxonby’s death, instead of narrowing down suspects and theories, the case widens.  All of this is quite clear logically although I’ll admit that I did get confused when it came to the forger section.

British Library Crime Classics has another title from Miles Burton (real name Cecil John Street, 1884-1965) due out in North America shortly: The Secret of High Eldersham. This is another author whose books are almost entirely out of print, so it’s marvellous to see a publisher bringing Burton back to be read and enjoyed all over again

Review copy

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Filed under Burton Miles, Fiction