The Crowning Murder (H.H. Stanners)

  • By H. H. Stanners
  • First published: UK: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1938

Harold H. Stanners (1894–1958) wrote three detective stories in the 1930s, featuring Professor Harding, an American international law expert staying in England. This may have been a bid to interest an American publisher, but Stanners was never printed in the States.

Murder at Markendon Court (1936) was “one of the most teasing and ultimately one of the most satisfying crime books of the year”, thought Observer critic Torquemada, and with it Stanners “steps well forward into the second rank of detective story writers”. It is set at a summer school in Gloucestershire, and involves the death of a trade union official. “A pretty problem – admirably sketched,” declared Milward Kennedy.

In At the Tenth Clue (1937), a disagreeable canon is murdered under an oak tree while organizing an outdoor treasure hunt. Torquemada thought the writing and characterization were better, but was less happy about the plot. “Mr. Stanners has originality and can baffle his readers with the best of his contemporaries; but the motive in this case is not quite satisfactory, and the false clue which dominates the detection seems to me unconvincing as an impromptu.”

Stanners ended his brief career with The Crowning Murder (1938). While the villagers celebrate the coronation of George VI, financier Sir Jabez Bellamby is shot in a quarry. The police believe it is suicide, and want it hushed up as “accident”.

Barzun and Taylor considered “this pleasant yarn” “first-rate … despite the period length”. The Sydney Morning Herald, however, thought this “orthodox murder story” was competent but unremarkable. “It will satisfy the average reader of detective fiction, but will hardly have librarians rushing to order extra copies.”

The book seemed wholly conventional, if pleasant. Crowning Murder felt like it was written in the mid-Twenties. Stanners gave us the map; the village and country house; footprints; the inquest; the trouser button; the distinctive cigarette-end. By 1938, the detective story had moved on, rather. But Stanners’s detective story was well-constructed and nicely clued.

Whodunnit, though, was apparent almost immediately; I identified the killer in the first chapter, and read the book with smug impatience. Stanners even borrowed a device from Roger Ackroyd (no, not that one, and not that one, either). It’s a variation; here, it is opportunistic rather than planned.

Locked-room fans might be disappointed by an old dodge, using pins and threads to lock a door from the outside (Stanners credits S.S. Van Dine) – but Stanners’s wrinkle is original. (ROT13: Gur “ivpgvz” fgntrf gur rssrpg, naq yrnirf gur cva-znex qryvorengryl.)

There’s some scientific detection by a dust-obsessed absent-minded scientist; in the best Dr. Thorndyke style, analysis of the grass found in the dead man’s hand shows where the crime happened.

I was irritated, though, by the blasé way in which a young man runs over a villager and kills him. Like Anthony Marston, there’s no remorse; he hopes the inconvenient trial won’t put him off his golf. (He gets off with a small fine.)

And then there’s one more twist; Stanners has set a neat trap for the confident, experienced reader, very neatly bringing the plot full circle. What seemed destined to three stars was lifted to:


Blurb

1938 Eyre & Spottiswoode

Professor Harding, Mr. Stanners’s good-natured American detective, is playing chess with a friend on the evening of Coronation Day, while everybody else is away at the communal rejoicings. The game is interrupted by a telephone call from Sir Jabez Bellamby, the local magnate, who says that he will come along and join them. he does not turn up, and the next day he is found shot dead in a quarry near his house.

Sir Jabez was not a popular character; the source of his wealth was a little obscure, and his relations with his wife not of the happiest. Her relations with a famous K.C. were also not above suspicion. But everyone agrees that Sir Jabez was not the sort to kill himself, and upon the arrival of the police, it becomes clear that he did not.

Many people are behaving oddly beside Lady Bellamby, her butler, and her friend Aubrey Newth, but the oddest thing of all, to Professor Harding, is the telephone call which he and his friend received at an hour when, according to expert testimony, Sir Jabez was already dead.


Contemporary reviews

The Sydney Morning Herald (3 June 1938): ORTHODOX MURDER STORY.

Blackmail and suden death are the twin themes of H. H. Stanners’s new Professor Harding mystery novel. A competently handled story, The Crowning Murder is not remarkable either for good or bad qualities; it will satisfy the average follower of detective fiction, but will hardly have librarians rushing to order extra copies.

Everything starts on Coronation night, when Professor Harding and his novelist friend, Derek Furness, are having a game of chess. Furness’s telephone rings; he answers it, returning to the game to inform Harding that the caller was Sir Jabez Bellamby. The time of the call is 10 p.m. But when the dead body of Sir Jabez is discovered next morning in a nearby quarry, his watch, broken, has stopped at 9.30 p.m.

From this beginning, Mr. Stanners develops his plot in conventional fashion. There is the usual number of suspects, each with a perfectly good motive for wishing to rid the earth of the dead knight. As usual, it seems, at one stage or another, that each of these suspects could have found it possible to execute the murder; indeed it is difficult, on occasion, to see how they could have failed to do it. Keen work on Harding’s part, however, clears each suspect in turn, until at last, in approved manner, the real killer is disclosed.

Mr. Stanners writes easily and manages to get a reasonable amount of conviction into a novel, the formula for which is now somewhat over-familiar. The Crowning Murder will be a good standby for a free winter’s evening when a warm fire disinclines the reader for too vigorous mental exercises.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): The title of this pleasant yarn refers to the celebrations observed in Britain on Coronation Day, especially in the evening.  In the absence of most of his servants on this festival occasion, Sir Jabez manages to get himself killed in a quarry immediately adjoining his grounds.  But was he pushed, or did he fall?  A quite well-drawn and tolerable American professor (of law) is a guest and contributes handsomely to a clearing up of the case.  Good characterisation and clues point toward the unlikely criminal.  Despite the period length, first-rate.

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