The Murderer of Sleep (Milward Kennedy)

  • By Milward Kennedy
  • First published: UK: Gollancz, 1932; US: H.C. Kinsey, 1933

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Milward Kennedy (pseudonym of Milward Rodon Kennedy Burge, 1894–1968), was one of the founding members of the Detection Club. A left-leaning civil servant and diplomat, he was criminally a cynical, playful experimenter in the vein of Anthony Berkeley (to whom he dedicated one book). He is perhaps best-known today for collaborating on the round-robins The Floating Admiral (1931) and Ask a Policeman (1933), and for succeeding Dorothy L. Sayers as critic for the Sunday Times.

“In the early Thirties,” Martin Edwards states, “Kennedy seemed destined to become one of the genre’s leading lights.” Sayers and Philip MacDonald both admired his novels, as did many critics of the time. The Manchester Evening News thought one of his early novels would “challenge comparison with any of the six best of all time and gain a place in the list”, while Beatrice Kean Seymour was “lost in admiration at the mere mechanics of its ingenious plot”. The Observer joked that “Mr. Kennedy runs a risk of burgeoning into a detective best-seller”.

Of the Kennedy novels I have read, only one justifies this praise. I didn’t like Death in a Deckchair (1930) or Corpse in Cold Storage (1934). (I think I’ve read Corpse Guard Parade and Bull’s Eye, too.) I would like to read the others, if I can.

But The Murderer of Sleep is rather good; in fact, The Observer considered it “undoubtedly his best book so far”, and in hindsight Barzun and Taylor considered it Kennedy’s masterpiece. I enjoyed it in 2009, and Jason Half’s recent review prompted me to reread it.

At the turn of the Thirties, there was a sub-genre of leisurely, almost summer holiday murders by rivers: The Floating Admiral, of course, the ColesMan from the River (1928), Knox’s Footsteps at the Lock (1928), and Miles Burton’s Death of Mr. Gantley (1932). The river in this one flows through the little village of Sleep, from Sleep Abbey (where the burglary has been committed), past three houses (where the suspects live), to the vicarage.

On a September afternoon, Grant Nicholson rows his boat down this river, looking for Sleep and plenty of beer; he finds the vicar strangled in his own churchyard. Staying nearby are a fussy Colonel and his niece, and an invalid and his nephew. At a Torgate hotel where they all stayed, a woman was beaten to death with a poker, and her jewels stolen. And on the day the parson was killed, Lady Tynan’s jewels were stolen from the Abbey… But just who is Grant Nicholson, and why does he pack a revolver?

The story itself might seem to meander rather, almost as much as the river; one might feel there are perhaps too many scenes of suspects watching suspects, and not enough clues and motives. But Kennedy cleverly plants clues in those innocuous scenes, and even gives the reader an enigmatic list.

The solution is hyper-ingenious. Twelve years ago, I called it a Golden Age Baroque treatment of one of the hoariest devices (ROT13: gur jurrypunve-obhaq vainyvq), ingeniously ringing changes on the theme; then, I grasped half the truth – and failed to spot the actual murderer. This time, the culprit again took me by surprise; I had forgotten whodunit. I only remembered ROT13: gung gur zna va gur jurrypunve jnf na vzcbfgbe, naq gurersber gung ur zhfg or gur xvyyre, juvpu jnf jebat; ur jnf vzcrefbangrq. In 2009, I called it the Golden Age at its best; I wouldn’t go so far now, but this is certainly a most agreeable book.

It also contains (as Jason pointed out) a delightful passage where Kennedy pokes gentle fun at some of the famous detectives of the day.

Blurb (US)

1933 H.C. Kinsey

Sleep – what a name for an English country village! What visions of rolling countryside, calm waters, placid days of rest and quiet routine far from the dangerous world!

The village of Sleep lived up to its name until the arrival – in separate contingents – of the invalid Mr. Cannon and his nephew, Richard Churt, Colonel Jethro and his charming step-daughter Anstice Carey, and Grant Nicholson, to take up residence in three adjoining riverside houses. With their appearance, Sleep became a nightmare – three brutal murders plus a robbery of baffling ingenuity shattered the rustic peace. It couldn’t have been the work of villagers because the first killing was committed while all the local folk, except the victim, were at a celebration on the manor grounds. In terror all eyes turned on the three new households which Sleep village had taken to its bosom … one of them must harbour a criminal genius and killer. Swift-paced and vigorous this mystery novel has all the elements to make it popular.

Contemporary reviews

The Observer (4 September 1932): Mr. Kennedy has done even better [than Francis Beeding in Murder Intended]. The Murderer of Sleep is undoubtedly his best book so far. He has always had a peculiar genius for titles, but none so good as The Murderer of Sleep has yet occurred to him. There is from the outset a faint macabre touch of the ghost of Macbeth brooding over the whole scene. Mr. Kennedy, like Mr. Beeding, deals in real people, and he writes with an easy absence of effort, perfectly suited to his subject, and therefore in the true sense with style. His story of the triple strangler, the old invalid in the bath-chair who could only say “I-I-I,” the blundering Colonel Jethro, and the bodies in the river, proceeds rapidly with the minimum of digression and with a clean insistence on plot which would have appealed to Anatole France. If scenery is introduced it has an object, if a little love-making is thrown in it is not wholly irrelevant and, what is more, at the end of the book we see the explanation of the whole of it as sharply and as simply as we could at the end of, say, “The Speckled Band.” Is it not, therefore, reasonable to ask why this achievement is to be condescendingly described as a good detective story when in fact it is an admirably effective novel, which succeeds in surmounting nearly all the peculiar difficulties of its genre? It shall not be so described at least in this column, which hastens to congratulate Mr. Kennedy on a book.

Times Literary Supplement (22nd September 1932): To make a good detective story the secret ought to be neither too soon and fully revealed nor kept locked up till page 280. Mr. Kennedy steers neatly between these opposite faults. The reader will guess early that ROT13: cnenylgvp byq Hapyr Pnaaba, va uvf ongu punve, pregvsvrq ol qbpgbef gb or culfvpnyyl vapncnoyr bs pevzr, jnf fbzrgvzrf yrsg ng ubzr juvyr na noyr-obqvrq pevzvany jrag bhg va gur ongu punve; ohg ur jvyy abg rnfvyl thrff jub jnf gur fhofgvghgr. Vaqrrq, vg jnf abg nyjnlf gur fnzr fhofgvghgr. Three men and a woman were responsible for one jewel theft at a seaside hotel and two in the oddly named village of Sleep. Four murders were incidental; ROT13: naq Avpubyfba, gur qrgrpgvir, jnf fhfcrpgrq bs bar bs gurz ol n lbhat jbzna ur nqzverq. It is all very ingeniously put together. ROT13: Ohg pbhyq n funz cnenylgvp, nppvqragnyyl qrgrpgrq ol n zhfphyne crefba, whzc bhg bs uvf punve naq jencf dhvpxyl rabhtu gb pngpu naq fgenatyr gur cnefba, va qnlyvtug, ba na bcra ebnq?

The Manchester Guardian (R.T.C., 5 October 1932): Mr. Crofts [in Death on the Way] is admirably unemotional; he is first and foremost the detective. Mr. Milward Kennedy is less professional and has more sympathy with frills. The Murderer of Sleep is a distinctly livelier piece of writing than Death on the Way, but despite its vigour it is not nearly so good a detective novel. There are two old acquaintances here, the mysterious invalid and the detective incognito, whose presence suggests that Mr. Kennedy is a little jaded, and the solution is easier to guess at than in Mr. Crofts’s story. Just to explain why is impossible, also, for one must not give away the secret. The solution should unroll itself for the reader precisely with the same speed as it does for the real detective, and here Mr. Crofts is the more successful.

Books (Will Cuppy, 19th March 1933, 130w): The successive crimes may serve to keep you awake in the small hours unless you demand a smoother vintage.  There are some interesting clews and plenty of big problems to answer.

Chicago Tribune (Mortimer Quick, 31 March 1933): In The Murderer of Sleep, by Milward Kennedy, coincidence is pushed a little too far and troubles seem to begin a little too suddenly. It is a good story, amusingly told, but you will wonder when you have finished it what its various rascals were doing before they stepped, full fledged, into the pages of this book. It is recommendable as highly entertaining and with an added chapter to answer questions which arise in the reader’s mind would be very satisfactory.

Sat R of Lit (8th April 1933, 40w): Sketch: Mr. Kennedy is to be congratulated on this admirable and unconventional story.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): M.K.’s masterpiece.  It has a good river, on which the plot is well floated.  The people in the village that gives its name to the story, as well as those in the big house at which a party is given, are equally endearing, and the dénouement is satisfactory.  Much humour of the right kind, and nowhere outré, as it tends to be in the author’s other tales. The title alludes to Macbeth II, 2, 37.

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