- By Lynn Brock
- First published: UK: Collins, 1929; US: Harper, 1929, as The Stoke Silver Case
Barzun and Taylor thought this was Lynn Brock’s worst detective story: “An impossibly complicated, unreadable mess.” It is in fact an enjoyable Twenties period piece – a summer holiday mystery, like the Coles’ Man from the River or Street’s Death of Mr. Gantley.
The setting is rural Somerset; a practical young lady playwright goes caravanning in the Quantocks to work on her second play, and instead solves the murder of the unpopular squire of Stoke Silver Park.
There’s no doubt this is a dense detective story; although Brock provides a map, the reader needs to take notes of characters’ movements on the night of the 19th, the time gunshots and cars were heard and by whom, and what bullets were fired from which gun. The true detective fan, of course, thrives on this sort of detail. Brock (pseudonym of playwright Allister McAllister) writes better than most of the Humdrums; the dialogue is amusing, the telling zestful, and we have a rare instance of a male writer with a female sleuth (attractive and level-headed).
But don’t expect a whodunit. Three-quarters through, it becomes apparent who the villains are. This is a detective / thriller hybrid, a subgenre popular in the late Twenties / early Thirties: amateur sleuths uncover a conspiracy (usually involving impersonation for profit), at the risk of their lives. (The most famous example is probably Christie’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?; the Coles’ Dead Man’s Watch, some of the early Burtons, and (in the next decade) Mitchell‘s Hangman’s Curfew also fit into this category.) Brock’s elaborate scheme is similar to that in Colonel Gore’s Second Case; the plot is clever but convoluted, and the explanations rather laborious.
I bought this book from fellow GAD enthusiast Scott Herbertson, who sells detective fiction on ABE as Hadwebutknown from a 19th century baronial house in the Scottish highlands. His website https://www.hadwebutknown.com/ is still under development.
Sarah Virginia Langley, having done several other things without satisfactory results, wrote a successful play then wanted to write a good one. She took her friend, Susan Yatt, with her in a caravan, and strayed down into Somerset in search of a plot for an Idea. She found a plot – but with quite a different sort of idea – a tragedy that ended for its victim in Dagwort Coombe; for her, after many thrills and some shocks, not in further box-office receipts, but in something perhaps more permanently satisfactory. The mystery which cast its baffling shadow over the lovely Quantock Country for many long months was solved at length by talents probably peculiar to young women with tip-tilted noses and determined chins. But though the narrative tells us always what her long eyes looked at – not until the closing chapters are we quite sure what they saw.
Times Literary Supplement (11th April 1929): Mr. Brock sets a good example to writers of detective stories by giving, on page 60, a neat little map by which the reader can see how Waddington, McPherson, Lazenby, Dr. Stapley, Sir Douglas Barrisford, Lady Barrisford and Gypsy Weane were all near Dagwort Coombe about the time Challice was killed there. Dagwort Coombe is near Stoke Silver, between Bridgewater and the sea; but the plot is too intricate to summarise. The (ROT-13) crefbangvba on which it hinges—gung bs n unys-penml evpu zna ol uvf vyyrtvgvzngr oebgure—is so ingenious that the reader is in some danger of sympathising with the villain more than with Miss Langley, the amateur detective. The killing of a man like Challice, who is dying of cancer and has attempted suicide five minutes earlier, might raise questions of morals; but Mr. Brock has chosen to write a purely detective story. The escape by motor-bicycle across the ridge of the Quantocks from Doddington to Crowcombe in the dark with a helplessly awkward pillion rider to look after, and a desperate pursuer in a high-power car, is a little difficult to believe.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): After a particularly good beginning—only a few pages—this turns into an impossibly complicated, unreadable mess. Far below Brock’s others, low though some of them stand. Not a Col. Gore story.