The Mendip Mystery (Lynn Brock)

  • By Lynn Brock
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1929; US: Harper, 1929, as Murder at the Inn

After the thuggish Dashiell Hammett, it’s refreshing to meet a private investigator who isn’t an ogre or a sociopath. Colonel Gore, in fact, is a decent cove. First, he’s asked by a furniture dealer to find a missing relative, then to meet another client at a rundown inn, the Bower of Bliss, down in Somerset. That young man misses his appointment; he falls off a horse and is carried to the inn unconscious. It’s all go at the inn that night. Escaped lunatics invade the premises; a landed proprietor, Louis Tanquered, is murdered – beaten over the head with a bottle, then suffocated; and the innkeeper’s loony brother steals Gore’s car and crashes it.

The mystery involves a child who died three years before, suffocated by gravel, making Tanquered’s wife heir to a fortune; diamond smuggling in South Africa and a field of jewels in Namaqualand; another murder in a circus in the 1820s (apparent suffocation by monkey); and the Edinburgh murderer Hare (of Burke and H. infamy).

First: Don’t read Barzun and Taylor’s review, which casually gives away the murderer! But this is not really a fair play detective story. Brock’s tend not to be (half of them involve criminal gangs, for a start); Conan Doyle was still alive, and so was his influence. We can only watch Colonel Gore solve the case, rather than puzzle it out ourselves. He receives a telegram from New York, and he makes inquiries in London, without telling the reader. Most of the evidence is produced after the denouement. The only clue we have is that the murderer was one of four people who had opportunity to steal a drug from a doctor’s bag. Even if one goes into the book knowing whodunnit, there are almost no indications of guilt until the culprit is found unconscious near the end, stabbed and stabbing their fourth victim. As a detective story, therefore, it’s entertaining but unsatisfactory.

But as in a sensation novel, whodunnit doesn’t seem to be the point; after the exposure, there are another 50 pages of Victorian confessions and sardonic defence counsels. The resolution is intentionally unsatisfying; the prosecution case collapses, and the defendant is acquitted in a court of law. For once, as in the ColesPendexter Saga, the culprit evades justice, at least until a sequel.

Things we learn from 1920s detective stories: The proper pronoun for a child is “it”.

A play based on the novel was performed at the Bristol Repertory Theatre in February 1931. (See The Manchester Guardian, 28 February 1931).

Brock wrote a short story called “The Bower of Bliss”, published in The Sketch (28 March 1928).


Blurbs

1929 Collins

Mendip – the oldest loneliest place in the world is the scene in which the opening act of this sinister drama is played.  In the solution of the problem presented by Louis Tanquered’s mysterious death, Colonel Gore displays once again those characteristic methods with which his previous “Cases” have made the reader familiar.  Not until the closing chapter does the truth as to what occurred at the “Bower of Bliss” on that November night reveal itself.

1929 Harpers, as MURDER AT THE INN

In a lonely sinister Inn, cut off by storm from the rest of the world, they were trapped, these people whose even tempers and mysterious motives had baffled the wily Colonel all through one hideous night.

Who was Tanquered, called by the name of the missing woman’s husband?  Who was the dying man upstairs nursed by Tanquered’s wife?  What had happened to Stanton, unconscious in his blood-stained bed – Stanton who had called in Colonel Gore?  A pack of escaped lunatics had raked the country-side.  Everything seemed mad.  The horror of the night was appalling.  Yet out of the tangled and disordered pasts of all these people Colonel Gore finally discovered the mystery and brought to justice the perpetrator of an ugly crime.

Breathless and puzzling, you are taken through a tale such as only Lynn Brock at his best could write.  It is a haunting, bewitching story for all lovers of detection and of crime.

Contemporary reviews

Times Literary Supplement (21st November 1929): Mr. Brock’s story ends with the question of who committed the Mendip murders unanswered.  It is true that Colonel Gore, that redoubtable solver of mysteries, is satisfied in his own mind; but he does not absolutely prove his case to the reader, there is too much purely circumstantial evidence, and, what is more, his suspect gets a triumphant acquittal at the hands of Judge and jury.  Louis Tanquered is brutally murdered in a lonely inn most inappropriately named the Bower of Bliss.  Colonel Gore, who is drawn into the case by a separate investigation he is carrying out for James Stanton, has reason to believe that Stanton will be the next victim, but is too late to save him.  The second husband of Stanton’s grandmother was believed to be William Hare, the notorious Edinburgh murderer and informer, and with this clue to help him Gore very cleverly traces the crime.  Despite an unsatisfactory ending, this is a cleverly constructed story.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): The author’s sixth, Murder on the Bridge being the sequel to it, as its English title, Q.E.D., suggests.  Although the failure of the police to win a conviction against ROT13: Terggn Uvttvaf is something of a letdown at the end, W.H.T. thinks this is one of the best-handled Gore tales.  The colonel is methodical and attractive, and the story straightforward.

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