Death in the Tunnel (Miles Burton)

By Miles Burton

First published: UK, Collins, 1947

Published in the US as Dark is the Tunnel, Doubleday 1936


Miles Burton, New Statesman critic Ralph Partridge observed, was a gentleman who knew all about mass production technique. Death in the Tunnel was the first of three books Major Street published under the Burton byline in 1936, and one of 15 published as Burton or John Rhode between 1935 and 1937.

Some of these are among Street’s best: The Corpse in the Car or Death on the Board, for instance. But others seem almost mechanical: devise a murder method (usually highly ingenious), then fill out with suspects, alibis, and red herrings. Repeat.

Death in the Tunnel is one of Street’s stodgiest books. It puffs along on predictable lines. An elderly businessman, Sir Wilfred Saxonby, is found shot in the corner of his first-class compartment, shortly after passing through the Blackdown tunnel – an apparent suicide. Murder seems impossible; the compartment was locked on the corridor side, and inaccessible on the other. The train driver says he was held up by a man with a red light, but nobody passed the signal cabins at each end of the tunnel. How was the crime committed?

But the book is all too obviously built around that ‘How’ problem; once it’s revealed a third through, Street falls back on old devices to construct an elaborate but lifeless plot. In how many of his books does the murderer create a false identity while he hires lorries and sends telegrams, or impersonate an innocent person as a second line of defence?

The detection is painsgiving: dense and detailed, thick with theorising. Merrion and Arnold interview garage owners and clerks, compare cheques and typewriters, and discuss the case endlessly. Characterisation and atmosphere are non-existent; we never meet the victim alive; the suspects are cardboard, not even worth suspecting; and the murderer is obvious from early on, while his accomplice isn’t even named until the last chapter.

Burton’s 1930s books are rare; if you can get hold of them, Death of Mr. Gantley and The Platinum Cat are better.


BLURBS

The train in which Sir Wilfred Saxonby was travelling had slowed  down in Blcakdown Tunnel, but gathered speed again as the red signal light changed to green.  In that brief interval, however, Sir Wilfred had been done to death – a mystery that presented Inspector Arnold and his friend Desmond Merrion with their most baffling case.  Death in the Tunnel has a most ingenious plot and provides a glorious feast of thrills.

1936 Doubleday, as DARK IS THE TUNNEL

Desmond Merrion and Inspector Arnold, C.I.D., team together again in solving the perplexing murder of Sir Wilfred Saxonby, killed in his locked compartment as his train moved through Blackdown Tunnel.

The method of the murder was a major mystery in itself – in fact, it seemed an impossibility.  Arnold and Merrion had to solve the amazing puzzle of the method before they could even attempt to seek the identity of the killer.  Once they came to the second phase of their investigation they learned that Sir Wilfred had been anything but an amiable man and that many varied people had more than adequate motives for his murder.

The skein of clues and motives seemed for a long time to defy untanglement.  Finally, however, Merrion and Arnold learned of the three checks, the two wallets and the rhododendron bed, and were able to trace the movements of a garage repair truck over a thirty-six hour period.  With these facts in hand it took only applied intelligence to reveal a murderer and a premeditated scheme of violent death of unprecedented ingenuity. Mr. Burton’s plots are the ultimate in bafflement.  Though almost wholly lacking in physical action, his plots are tense with criminal conflict and suspense and move with a celerity which prohibits boredom.


CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Observer (Torquemada, 5th January 1936):

The Crime Club has started the year well; for if the murders selected by it for January have little to give us in the way of literature, all four of them are workmanlike and show ingenuity far above the average.

I do not think it is the rose-tinted monocle of the New Year which also makes me see Death in the Tunnel as its author’s best detective story.  Mr. Burton’s progress is always a little on the stately side, and for that reason his special appeal is to those who like dogged rather than inspired retribution to overtake their murderers.  In this tale he gives us a most satisfying amount of complication in the shooting of Sir Wilfred Saxonby, who, but for a curious chance, would have been stabbed, and also of snarls and knots along the rather considerable length of the rope which eventually hangs two villains.  Mr. Burton’s amateur and professional, Merrion and Arnold, work in together with unusual humanity, neither providing a mental darkness for the other’s skill to “stick fiery off, indeed”.

Times Literary Supplement (11th January 1936):

There is a railway tunnel near Dover, with a ventilating shaft in the middle, so tempting to novelists that within six months two of them have taken it as scene.  The first was the author of “The Stolen Boat Train” [Douglas G. Browne]; the second is Mr. Burton.  In that tunnel Sir Wilfred Saxonby, head of a City firm of importers, was shot in a first-class carriage.  How it was done was a puzzle for a time; who planned the ingenious method was a puzzle till the end. Sir Wilfred was not a very amiable man.  Indeed, search revealed that he was planning severe injury to an enemy of his.  Was it that enemy who planned the murder?  Or was it Sir Wilfred’s niece, his son, his daughter, his chicken-farming son-in-law, his secretary, Torrance, or Dredger, the old ex-manager of the Manchester branch?  Merrion, the miraculous amateur, made guesses, Inspector Arnold followed them up, and the murderers were duly hanged.  Luckily the skilled forger in real life is seldom also a skilled burglar.

New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 25th January 1936):

Death in the Tunnel, Death in the Wheelbarrow and A Word of Six Letters are compounded of standard materials by gentlemen who know all about mass production technique.  The results are exactly what one expects; unpretentious, readable books which neither disappoint nor exhilarate.  The wheel-barrow contained the body of a middle-class bachelor who had retired to live in the country on ₤1,200 a year, and was wheeled along a country lane just after closing time in the village pub.  The tunnel (Blackdown tunnel on a suburban line) was exploited most recklessly by a murderer to make the death of a company director in a first class carriage look like suicide.  The word of six letters was found to be applicable to the death of a rich Dorset squire, who went out for a ride and was found with a broken neck.  The villain is conspicuous in A Word of Six Letters, fairly guessable in Death in the Tunnel, and frankly imposed on readers in Death in the Wheelbarrow.

Sat R of Lit (7th November 1936, 40w):

A-1 Puzzler.

Books (Will Cuppy, 8th November 1936, 260w)

NY Times (Kay Irvin, 8th November 1936, 340w): In the first few pages it may look to the too cocksure reader as if this mystery were going to be fairly easy.  But it soon turns out to be anything but.  Dark is the Tunnel is before all else a puzzle: close-knit, surprising in almost every detail of its progress, and so well balanced in its various clues that the reader is utterly baffled—and the author is human enough to let us see that his detectives are baffled too.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): The first Burton stories that the collectors ever read, and brand new at the time.  Among railway stories the present tale ranks very high, as it does also among Burton’s large output.  The motive of revenge, the shenanigans with the airshaft, the timing, and the telling are all excellent, and the few faults characteristic of the mid-thirties in no way spoil a most rereadable affair.

6 thoughts on “Death in the Tunnel (Miles Burton)

  1. I didn’t dislike it as much as you did, but it did rather turn me off reading Burton. Symons’s phrase really is apt: “hum-drum”. But perhaps I should give Death on the Board a shot.

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    1. I wouldn’t give up on Street, but you have to be selective. Murder, M.D. and The Three Corpse Trick (both mid-’40s) are my two favourites as Burton; both are crisply written, and have good puzzle plots.

      The ’30s Burtons can be humdrum; from the ’40s on, Street tried to jazz up the Burtons, writing solid village mysteries with more character interest.

      The books as Rhode began as scientific problems in the line of R. Austin Freeman, and end up as police procedurals. Of those, The Claverton Mystery is a classic; and Death on the Board has lots of splendid murders.

      A lot of the ’20s books have plenty of action; Dr. Priestley nearly gets killed several times – particularly in The Ellerby Case and The Murders in Praed Street (early serial killer case). I’d also recommend The Venner Crime, The Corpse in the Car, Proceed with Caution (the Humdrum school at its best), and Death in Harley Street.

      Post-WWII, Vegetable Duck has a memorable murder method, too. Dr. Goodwood’s Locum and Licenced for Murder are clever late books, although slow.

      This is my 80th or so Street mystery – so I’ve only read about half… Have you read Curt Evans’s book on Street, Crofts and Connington? There are others he recommends that I haven’t found copies of: Peril at Cranbury Hall, Dead Men at the Folly, Murder of a Chemist, Death at Low Tide, Death at the Helm, They Watched by Night, and Death at the Dance, for instance.

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  2. Masters of the Humdrum? Yes, heard of it. 😁
    I own Murder on Board so will give that a try. Might not be for a while, but if this “social distancing” lasts long enough … If I like it I will compare your list to what’s on Kindle.

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  3. No, not in quarantine,but avoiding crowds. Plus a lot of stuff is closing here. The library has closed all branches for example and there might be more in the coming week. Step daughter is in quarantine as she is a nurse and a patient tested positive.

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