By Lynn Brock
First published: UK, Collins, 1925; US, Harpers, 1926
Lynn Brock was one of the second-tier writers of the 1920s, the pseudonym of Allister McAllister, an Irish playwright and novelist who dabbled in detection. His tec is Colonel Wickham Gore, international polo player and African explorer turned private eye.
S. S. Van Dine and Milton M. Propper (another minor writer, from the States) both liked him; so did the newspaper reviewers. (See ONTOS for some.) Barzun & Taylor are more reserved. I read a couple nearly 15 years ago – his first, The Deductions of Colonel Gore (1925), and the very late, impenetrably convoluted Fourfingers (1939).
I tried to read Colonel Gore’s Second Case back then, but couldn’t get into it. This time round, I persevered, and discovered, halfway through, that I was enjoying this tale of multiple murder in the English countryside.
Don’t be put off by the hypnotically boring opening chapter, which consists of middle-aged men walking slowly around a golf course:
“The fourteenth was a 4-bogey. Gore and the Secretary followed their drives along the fairway, which rose at first gently with the broad upward sweep of the ground, played spared irons of indifferent success for their seconds, and took each three more to get down. Scott-Keith remained thus one-up, with four to go.”
It improves. And how. By halfway through, we’ve had three corpses in the present (including a Bishop, possibly bumped off by his vicar in a quarrel over church doctrine); one murder in the past; a few attempted murders; two men gone missing; and an ex-convict with a grudge. And Colonel Gore himself has been gassed.
Gore, you might say, doesn’t bore.
The excitement continues apace, with confusion over a courtesan, some toothsome evidence, and the rescue of the intended victim from a sinister nursing-home.
The solution’s intricate; too intricate, some critics thought. “A tale of incredible complexity,” Barzun and Taylor wrote, with “twenty-five pages of fine print (Gore’s ‘notes’) … to clear up any small points.”
It’s not that bad; but the crime’s the work of two principals and six accomplices (some of whom don’t appear until the very end). (British writers wrote a few detective stories where a gang did the deed; J. J. Connington penned several, and Agatha Herself tried her hand in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?.) What people did is clear – but the why is less so. (SPOILER I’m not sure how the villains benefited from the Mrs. P. / Mrs. L. substitution.)
There’s at least one surprise – surprising to Colonel Gore, who didn’t suspect X until he walked into the trap. Gore’s strictly in the amateur class; luck, not the little grey cells, plays a large part in his investigations. But we’re onto the clues at the same time he is.
This, though, isn’t really a fair play puzzle plot; it’s telling that the explanation is based on evidence given at the trial and on the criminal’s confession, rather than on clues planted in the narrative.
With the methods of Colonel Gore, the reader has already become acquainted in The Deductions of Colonel Gore. As he faces now with that genial individual the task of solving the intricate problem presented by the Powlett case, he will find, no doubt, as before, some naïvetés to smile at, some miscalculations to deplore, a flair of real brilliance and a perseverance of invincible determination to admire. He will walk with him, at all events, step by step along the devious and baffling path to the truth. Equipped with no less knowledge and no more. And if at moments along the pilgrimage he disapproves of some little strayings of his companion from the straight path, it is trusted that at the second Finis of this series the two will part as good friends as they did at the first.
Times Literary Supplement (25th February 1926):
The scenes of this story are laid on and near a West Country golf course. There is a murder in the bunker at the seventeenth hole, there is an attempted murder in the grounds of the president of the club, a bullet narrowly misses a lady while telephoning in his house, a man is kidnapped and hidden in some ruins near the course, and the Bishop of the diocese is found murdered in the adjacent parish church. One of the Bishop’s brothers has been murdered before the story begins and the corpse of a girl disentangled from a motor accident a few hours after the murder of the prelate is identified as that of his niece. With such a wealth of violent incident to occupy his mind and an attempt on his own life to distract him, it is small wonder that Colonel Gore is sorely puzzled, and the reader will be quite bewildered until the Colonel, in trying to prove one theory, is forced to adopt its direct opposite, only just in time to stop yet another murder and rehabilitate a much-injured reputation.
The Spectator (27 February 1926):
A long and very detailed murder story which would be easier reading if it had begun with Chapter XXI. True, the element of mystery would be wanting in the book, but the mystery is too involved to be too easily followed.