Travelling Butcher (Alice Campbell)

I haven’t read a detective story quite so impenetrable since Lynn Brock‘s Fourfingers some 16 years ago.

Alice Campbell was an American writer of HIBK mysteries; like John Dickson Carr, she moved to England, and set most of her books there.

Lenore Glen Offord once complained that Campbell’s books were spoilt by over-complicated plotting and a style that left no time for effects to sink in. And how.

In a mystery less mystifying than bewildering, we have half-a-dozen murders in London and deeply rural Dorset (three in the opening chapters alone); one or possibly two murderers; mysterious intruders; odious cousins (one queer, the other spiteful and subnormal, both “creepy”); a Stuart treasure; a scheme to sell antiques to the Yanks; sleepwalking; drugs; possible robbery; prowling cats; suspects agreeing to keep evidence from the police; and (of course) a romance between heroine and suspect.

The result: An inextricably cluttered, unappealing mess. I read the first two-thirds, then put the book aside for a fortnight. Avoid.

For a more favourable review, see Cross Examining Crime.


1944 Collins

Lady Hyacinth Gloam is an astute business woman who was attempting to cash in on the money-making possibilities of exporting antiques to America. During the London blitz she decides to evacuate her treasures to a cottage in the country, Foxgloves Cottage at Monkspond. Tragedy stark and macabre surrounds that extraordinary journey which started amid bombs and was accompanied by death – and murder. Travelling Butcher is a really gripping, fast-moving detective story full of well-sustained suspense, and must rank as one of Alice Campbell’s best.


Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 6 May 1944): Why the “feel” of London during the blitz should exist so exactly in the opening chapters of Travelling Butcher is hard to analyse, but perhaps it is because the heroine, while reasonably fearful of bombs, suffers torment from personal propinquities.  In a well-equipped shelter she has regularly to make a fourth at bridge with spoilt-child mentalities.  At last she is able to go far away, and then through an evening mist she can see the first of those loathed forms approaching.  The shock to her nervous system communicates itself so well that the unknown murderer who is already at work will obviously have difficulty in producing a shudder like it.  The book then is a study in comparative apprehensions—first bombs, then a bed-fellow’s snores, and then the likelihood that your throat will be cut at any moment.  With all due respect to murderers, we would very much like this to have been a novel solely about other people’s bad habits during air raids, because that is a subject the author can make us laugh at.  Such humour, alas, is prefatory.  In the country cottage where all the shelterers go horrors keep deepening until an orgy of blood-thirstiness at last discloses who is killing and who is being killed.  Even the disappointment just mentioned cannot quench our zest in the massacre.

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