The Hymn Tune Mystery (George A. Birmingham)

  • By George A. Birmingham
  • First published: UK: Methuen, 1930; US: Bobbs-Merrill, 1931

Murder in a small cathedral town! Cresswell the organist drinks, and the archdeacon and the dean’s daughter want to get rid of him; someone does – permanently. One morning, the organ fails to play at the start of the service; afterwards, the organist is found dead in the loft, his skull cracked. It seems to have been an accident; he fell off his stool, and hit his head on an oak chest. But could he have been murdered by criminals looking for stolen jewels? An irrepressible young canon, Dennis, investigates.

The Observer, 12 October 1930

George A. Birmingham was the pseudonym of Canon James Hannay (1865–1950), an Irish clergyman and popular comic novelist. This is a minor but delightful story, stronger as comedy than as mystery, and one can spend a very agreeable afternoon with it.

It bubbles with good humour; Birmingham cocks a surprisingly unclerical snook at officialdom and efficiency – the dean’s domineering daughter Sybil, the pompous archdeacon, and the regulation-bound prison chaplain are put in their place, while the dear old Dean translates mediaeval Latin drinking songs, and the boyish canon Dennis gets up to mischief.

Dorothy L. Sayers may well have read it; several elements resemble The Nine Tailors. Years before, a verger (former valet) steals Lord Carminster’s emeralds; he and his cronies are imprisoned, but the jewels were never found. The verger died in prison, without revealing the secret, and his former associates are looking for the jewels. The clue to their hiding place is in a musical cryptogram. Birmingham’s cryptogram, using (of course) a hymn tune, is simpler and cleverer than Sayers’s elaborate, even laborious, bell-ringing; I worked out most of the cryptogram, but (I’m embarrassed to say) not what it meant. I could have kicked myself.

The plot is slim, though, and you should suspect who the murderer is. The ending, too, is rather abrupt; as The Guardian commented: “Mr. Birmingham suddenly ends his book without ever having troubled to solve it fully.”

US blurb

Carminster is the most beautiful and the most felicitously peaceful of the smaller cathedrals of England. It is famous for its music. In it is the tomb of a mediaeval bishop of dubious morals, not unlike the one who ordered his tomb at St. Praxed’s.

None but an Irishman, and no Irishman but George A. Birmingham, would think of staging a murder in Carminster; of concealing a cryptogram in a hymn tune (try to read it!); of drawing into the mystery the tomb of the scandalous bishop and his tawny-haired Chloe.

And what a cast of characters: the mild old Dean, translating Latin drinking songs; his daughter, designed by nature to be the Head of an Institution; an Archdeacon intent on being most archidiaconally bossy; vergers, canons, impish choir boys; a criminal; a “consummate” drunkard; a Scotland Yard detective much disliked; a rural policeman with a hard head; a gay young lady of doubtful quality, – and Dennis–

Dennis, the Precentor, the latest and best of Mr. Birmingham’s wonderful Irishmen. He’s a marvel; he’s a joy; he’s perfectly immense.

When George A. Birmingham turns to write a mystery story, you may of course expect something different. But how deliciously different it proves to be!

The idea of staging a murder in a staid and sleepy Cathedral and bringing all the respectable Chapter into the crime and its solution! It was a real murder, a terrible murder, but somehow it is kept from being harrowing. And granted that tragic fact, consider the genius for incongruity that keeps us chuckling every minute while Dennis, the irrepressible Irish Precentor, strives to unravel the riddle.

Mr. Birmingham reconciles the irreconcilable; renders the illogical supremely and ridiculously logical by Irish indirection. He makes his surprising characters do the most unnatural things in the most delightfully natural way. He pokes the midriffs of pretentious prelates of the Established Church. He raps the heads of solemn and questionable guardians of the law. He evolves a burglar from a valet through a verger.

And all the way of this gay and exciting tale is one piquant antithesis after another – furnished with wit, with charm, with sly and nimble satire.

Contemporary reviews

The Guardian (R.B.L., 24 October 1930): The idea of taking the well-known tune to the hymn “Jerusalem, my happy home” and manufacturing out of it a cryptogram to conceal the whereabouts of stolen jewels is cheerful and amusing. Mr. Birmingham manages this part of his story with great skill. It is enacted within a cathedral setting, and the hero is of the type of his old voluble curate in Spanish Gold, so that good fun is to be had from him and his brother cathedral clergy. But the mystery itself is absurdly slight, and Mr. Birmingham suddenly ends his book without ever having troubled to solve it fully.

The Observer (Gerald Gould, 16 November 1930): A beta. … Mr. Birmingham’s mystery is much neater [than Sayers’ Strong Poison], but he does not sufficiently engage one’s interest in what happens.

Times Literary Supplement (20 November 1930): This story deals with the mysterious death within Carminster Cathedral of the organist, Cresswood.  He was a very capable musician, but addicted to drink.  One morning he was found dead in the organ loft, apparently having fractured the base of his skull by falling backwards on to the edge of an oak box which stood behind the organ stool.  The jury at the inquest returned a verdict of death by misadventure.  But facts came to light later on which pointed to murder.  A few years before, Hill, one of the vergers, who had previously been valet to a local magnate, Lord Carminster, was convicted of being the ringleader in the burglary of Lady Carminster’s valuable emeralds.  Scotland Yard had sent down a detective named Hodson, who caught the gang, though the jewels themselves mysteriously disappeared.  Hill had recently died in prison, and before his death had sent to his daughter, Elsie, a piece of paper, which was passed as innocent by the prison authorities, bearing on it apparently a fragment of a hymn tune.  Elsie was engaged to Cresswood, and handed the tune to him to translate its hidden meaning, for it was really a cryptogram.  After Cresswood’s death it was found by the Precentor, who, with the assistance of the local police-inspector, finally solved the cryptogram. ROT13: Vg pbagnvarq n zrffntr gung gur rzrenyqf jrer uvqqra va gur gbzo bs Ovfubc Yrqn, fvghngrq va gur nvfyr ng gur fbhgu raq bs gur uvtu nygne.  Ohg jura gur cnve rknzvarq gur gbzo gurl sbhaq vg pbagnvarq abguvat ohg obarf.  The explanation of the mystery was revealed at the end.

Birmingham Post: One likes this story as much as anything Canon Hannay has written since Spanish Gold. Altogether a very delightful piece of work.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): In the quiet but steady mode this is a delight.  Intelligence, humour, character, and prose are in equipoise.  The setting is an English cathedral church and the man figures are naturally clerics.  When the organist with a penchant for the bottle is found dead in his loft, and in an uncommon posture at that, the need to avoid scandal is as great as the desire to see justice done.  Inspector Smallways manages to reconcile these two interests, while displaying adequate powers—up to a certain sticky place, which fate then helps him get unstuck.

3 thoughts on “The Hymn Tune Mystery (George A. Birmingham)

  1. Birmingham is one of those writers whose names you often see on the back cover of old novels, in lists of “other authors we publish” – once quite popular but now almost forgotten.

    Liked by 1 person

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