- By Cecil Waye (pseudonym of John Street)
- First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1931
- Availability: Dean Street Press, 2021
Almost 20 years ago, Tony Medawar hinted that he had unearthed a third pseudonym of the prolific Cecil John Street (alias John Rhode and Miles Burton). We had to wait some three months. Like a good detective story, we were kept in suspense, evolving ingenious but wrong hypotheses. (I suggested A. Fielding; “she” was apparently born in the same year as Street, and nobody knew her identity. Proof conclusive.)
The answer was obvious in hindsight: Cecil Waye. (I had even skimmed through one of the Waye books, not knowing it was by Street.)
Cecil Waye appeared in 1931, a year after Street began writing as Miles Burton. There are four books in the series: Murder at Monk’s Barn and The Figure of Eight (1931); The End of the Chase (1932); and The Prime Minister’s Pencil (1933), all featuring private detective Christopher Perrin. Street expert Curt Evans says he read two, but found neither work memorable; a judgement with which I would have agreed, based on the couple I read.
But the reader can make up his own mind – and this critic, for one, had to reconsider his earlier judgement. Dean Street Press reprinted the quartet this week. Crime, one might say, has found its Waye.
Monk’s Barn, in the village of Fordington, is home to Gilbert Wynter (like Street, an electrical engineer). One night, a shot is heard; the local constable finds Wynter’s corpse, shot through the head, his wife kneeling beside the corpse. There are baffling features: the shot was fired from outside, the curtains were drawn, so how could the victim have been killed if the criminal couldn’t see him?
Murder at Monk’s Barn is fresher and wittier than the books Street wrote 15 years later, or even some of the Rhodes of the Thirties. Street seems to have taken inspiration from Agatha Christie. The detective agency is run by two bright young things, like Tommy and Tuppence in Partners in Crime. The sleuth is Perrin’s sister Vivienne, a clever young woman; like Emily Trefusis in The Sittaford Mystery, she falls in love with one suspect, and determines to clear him. The murder is domestic, suburban, concerning poisoned chocolates, flowerpots, and curtains.
The garrulous postmistress and the amiable, rather shallow Mrs. Cartwright are deftly drawn; a seduced maid is treated with more respect and sympathy than servants usually receive in detective stories of the period; and there is passion and obsession in the murder. Street also takes more of a psychological approach to detection; like Miss Marple and Poirot, Vivienne understands human nature.
The engineer Austin confesses himself baffled by human psychology: “I find things much more easy to understand than people… Take a piece of steel, for instance. You can do almost anything you want to with it, it’s only a matter of treating it the right way. … In the case of steel there are certain hard-and-fast laws, which have been determined by experiment. But it seems to me that you can’t lay down laws for the proper treatment of human beings. No two of them are alike.”
To which clever Vivienne replies that human beings are just as predictable. “That’s a matter of experiment, too,” she tells him.
As often in Street, the reader can guess the murderer; the list of suspects is small. (I wondered whether Street would go thoroughly Christie, and produce a least-likely suspect: ROT13: gur znvq.) But how is different. The method is strikingly clever; it’s a variation on a device that ANZAC soldiers, for one, used in the trenches. In terms of detective plotting, it seems related to the Intuitionist impossible alibi stories. (ROT13: Nf va, sbe vafgnapr, Puevfgvr’f Zheqre va Zrfbcbgnzvn, be Purfgregba’f “Zvenpyr bs Zbba Perfprag”, gur zheqrere unf n frrzvat pnfg-veba nyvov. Ur pbhyq abg culfvpnyyl unir pbzzvggrq gur pevzr. Ohg gur qrgrpgvirf’ nffhzcgvbaf nobhg gur qverpgvba sebz juvpu gur pevzr jnf pbzzvggrq vf jebat.)
Now, dare we hope for more Street reprints from Dean Street Press?
Daily News (Charles Williams, 15 July 1931): KILLED WHILE SHAVING The Murder at Monk’s Barn takes place while the victim is shaving, which is indecent. There should be privacies in fiction, and the detestable necessity of shaving, which nature and fashion impose on us, is one of them. But the murder itself is ingenious, and uninventive readers will be stimulated to madness by wondering why the flowerpot was marked with luminous paint. The feminine detective was a little put off her stride either by loving the suspect or by not caring for chocolates; I think if anyone had died at my feet just after eating chocolates I might have wondered if there was anything wrong with them. After all, nowadays, poison flows beside the path we tread – the gorges of the Chilterns and the gutters of Fleet-street alike run with it, and “grace after meat” has a new and heartfelt meaning.