Death in the Wheelbarrow (William Gore)

  • By William Gore
  • First published: UK: Harrap, 1935

Rating: 2 out of 5.

“‘Ster Breen,” says farm labourer George, “there’s a tramp chap like in a ditch at t’bend under th’ old holly clump.”

Let him alone, Farmer Breen tells George.

“Ar, but some’ow, it just come to me; this yer chap’s maybe diffrunt.”

In fact, George suspects it’s a corpse. (“And then it comes right over me, ‘By Gor, that chap’s dead.’”)

And sure enough, it is a corpse, “all squattered about”.

Only it isn’t a tramp, it’s Eccles, of Myrtle Lodge.

Yes, folks, the famous Eccles has been deaded.

Death in the Wheelbarrow, the second of William Gore’s detective stories, is a run-of-the mill, bucolic detective story, mildly amusing but dull in plot, aimed at people who enjoy phonetically written dialect and ‘comic’ characters.

To be fair, Gore doesn’t just give us his version of yokel English; he phonetically renders the Chief Constable, too, with his “Af’noons” and “Jessos”. A.G. Macdonell (Bystander) was driven “into a perfect frenzy of rage” by Sergeant Stubbs’ “maddening trick of speech”: repeating the last word or phrase in every sentence.

There are also a bevy of belligerent servants, maids who want to be film stars, and chattering nudists. There are silly names, too: why, one wonders, are the local police Stubbs and Tubbs?

The mystery itself is pedestrian. Who brought the body by wheelbarrow? Why does Eccles have a hidden collection of priceless lost paintings?

The detection consists largely of speculation. The police speculate about various suspects whom we already know are innocent, since we’ve seen them speculating who could be the murderer. Speculation is contagious; Breen the farmer and his cronies George and Art the poacher speculate, and PC Tubbs and Eunice the maid are at it, too (when not “committing matrimony without yet committing ceremony”). One should be able to eliminate almost everyone except two suspects; the culprit is well-hidden, but underwhelming. At least the crime didn’t turn out to be the work of a gang, as I feared it might.

But you might enjoy it more. Certainly, the reviews of the time – mostly from provincial papers – were positive. The Coventry Evening Telegraph thought it “a fine piece of work”; the Burton Observer and Chronicle judged it “certainly one of the most satisfactory murder stories I have read for some time”; and the Evening News declared it was “one of the most exciting of the winter thrillers”.

A physical copy will set you back a mere £1,530.00. Otherwise, Black Heath Crime reprinted it as an e-book.

Contemporary reviews

From the Observer, 25 October 1937.

The Bystander (A.G. Macdonell, 30 October 1935): Mr. William Gore is a most ingenious writer of detective stories, and his new one, Death in the Wheelbarrow, is on his usual capital lines. It is pleasantly written, cleverly devised, and capable of filling in the time between, say, Taunton and Newbury in an express train. But I must raise my sole and shrill voice in protest against one increasing tendency in these detective novels. It really does not make a sleuth into a character by giving him a maddening trick of speech. Mr. Gore makes his Sergeant Stubbs repeat the last word or phrase in every sentence, thereby driving the reader into a perfect frenzy of rage.

Gloucestershire Echo (21 November 1935): Death in the Wheelbarrow adds to the fame of William Gore as a writer of most entertaining mystery stories.

This is a tale of a village murder, and features which make it such acceptable reading are its dry humour, its clever studies of village characters, and the essentially sensible way in which the narrative is unfolded.

A farmer finds his landlord dead in a wheelbarrow – and the dead man’s own finger-prints are on the handles of the barrow!

From this baffling and exciting start the reader is led through a series of adventures, conjectures and false clues, during which an innocent woman is tried and acquitted, before a road crash at night brings a confession – and a solution.

Mr. Gore uses a terse and clear style to present the reader with a murder mystery which is exciting without being bloodcurdling, and his quiet and unforced humour leaves one chuckling at the most unexpected places.

Coventry Evening Telegraph (“Bookmark”, 22 November 1935): Cycling to work in the early morning, a ploughman finds the body of a man in the ditch. He has been murdered, taken to the spot in a wheelbarrow, and tipped out. But, on the handles of the barrow, the only fingerprints are those of the dead man.

This is the intriguing introduction to William Gore’s second mystery novel, Death in the Wheelbarrow. It is a fine piece of work. I thought I had guessed the identity of the guilty person about half-way through. The police in the story came to the same conclusion and an arrest was made, followed by the trial. But I was wrong – and so were the police.

Not only does the book afford a really puzzling problem in detection, but it is distinguished by its writing, its characterisations – and by the author’s knowledge of artists and the technicalities of painting.

Times Literary Supplement (23 November 1935): Henry Eccles did not in fact die in a wheel-barrow, nor was his body found in one, as is given out by the dust-cover of this book. But his body was found by the wayside with such indications as to suggest that it had been conveyed there in a wheelbarrow. Who pushed it? This is, or seems to be, the problem for the reader. It is stated, with reasonable fairness and a reasonable number of false clues, in an entertaining manner. But probably no one would have guessed the answer right; certainly the police would not have done so if the culprit had not betrayed himself. There are two flaws in what would otherwise have been a very successful book. It is far more difficult to carry about a dead body then the author seems to suppose. And the account of a trial for murder is so full of errors as to turn what had hitherto been a pleasant comedy (with a tragic background) into a farce.

Burton Observer and Chronicle (Helen Cockburn, 5 December 1935): Mr. Gore gets a sense of atmosphere and character into his detective stories which removes them from the category of mere thrillers into that of serious fiction. Death in the Wheelbarrow is a subtle study of the psychological reactions of country folk to a murder in their midst. The body of a local landlord is found on the roadside by George, a grouchy farm hand, and “Foxy” Breen, his master. It is thought that the death might have been caused by a motor-car, until George, who is at any rate, sure if he is slow, spots a wheelbarrow track In the grass. Fired by this success. George and “Foxy” do their best to find the murderer, and although they make a mistake at the end they come very near to solving the mystery.

This solution is, as a matter of fact, the weakest part of the story, but, as I have said, this is not a book which depends entirely on its plot, it is certainly one of the most satisfactory murder stories I have read for some time.

Evening News: With a nice collection of rural personalities and with an exceedingly adroit twist towards the end, it is one of the most exciting of the winter thrillers.

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