The Tin Tree (James Quince)

  • By James Quince
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1930

Rating: 3 out of 5.
The Observer, 31 August 1930

1917. On a Western Front battlefield, Lt. Budocksted hears an extraordinary story from Gunner Rachelson: the Cockney soldier is really John Montauban, who brutally murdered his cousin Juan, the half-Spanish, wholly disreputable squire of Pecheford Monachorum. Only, Jack explains, it was a dreadful accident.

Invalided back to England with a foot injury and the M.C., Budocksted calls for the newspaper files, and discovers that Jack could not have killed Juan as he described; the man was already dead…

There is romantic interest, too; Jack was engaged to Lady Peggy Crase, the woman whom Budocksted loves, and both men are also attracted to Embrance, the intelligent, capable parlourmaid turned nurse.

The Rev. James Spittal wrote three detective stories, of which this is the first. It was warmly praised. “I have seldom had the privilege of reading such an excellent first novel,” declared The Montrose Review; “it is full of sustained interest, entertainingly written, and although I have grown rather wearied of murders and detectives I found myself deeply interested in The Tin Tree.” Ralph Straus in the Bystander thought the ingredients might make a commonplace thriller, but he could not “remember another novel which makes use of so many of the good old ‘situations’ and yet seems to be something new”. More recently, Martin Edwards, Curt Evans, and TomCat have praised Quince’s books.

The Tin Tree is an entertaining, well-written detective story, although very much on the light side. The dustjacket denies this is a war novel, but Tin Tree is one of the few detective stories set on the Western Front. Other writers (e.g. Philip MacDonald) set their stories in the present day; cowardice or a military blunder might cause modern murder, but war is the backstory, not the focus. In the opening section, Quince beautifully evokes the stillness of the battlefield:

It seemed as though the fog had imposed an armistice; occasionally, a far-off crackle of machine guns, a distant shell-burst. Even then the muted sounds came through with a kind of gentle apology for introducing the thought of more death into so death-like a stillness.

Chapter I

There is also a memorable description of a wounded soldier dying with almost “a cry of triumph, of victory, of great gladness”.

I deduced the murderer quite easily, to the point where I wondered if it might be one of the false solutions TomCat mentioned; the telegram sent a clear signal. The Biblical reference (ROT13: Wnry, gur jvsr bs Urore) and linguistic misunderstanding (Onfgneq! / Onfgn!) are both clever, however. The murderer is saintly, and – oddly, for an English vicar – Quince thinks murder is justified! The church militant? “Today, my sermon will be on why you should kill the enemies of God.” I wonder what his bishop had to say?

Contemporary reviews

Edinburgh Evening News (10 September 1930): A young baronet is suspected of murder, and he makes his escape from the scene of the crime in the west country of England. He joins the Army in the Great War, and, preserving incognito, comes in touch with an officer who is the means of unravelling the mystery. The perpetrator of the murder was the last person who would be suspected of it, and the mystery is cleared up by a death-bed confession. A Spanish woman, also a suspect, signs a confession of another murder. This is also a death-bed confession, and for a time it complicates matters. Mr Quince tells a most ingenious story in his first novel.

Leicester Evening Mail (P.W.K., 11 September 1930): Mr. Quince has introduced his readers to a new type of mystery story in that he takes up the thread of a murder two years after it has reached a satisfactory conclusion as far as a West Country coroner was concerned, and proceeds to show by a clever examination of long dead clues how wrong that coroner was to assume that two and X make four.

The story opens at the front during the war, and shows the alleged murderer of Sir Juan Montauban describing the “crime” to his superior officer, and works back to the scene of the crime and the ultimate lifting of the veil of mystery.

The Montrose Review (12 September 1930): I thought I had stumbled upon another war book when I read the first few pages of The Tin Tree, but I was agreeably surprised to find that it was not a war story but an intriguing mystery tale of the English west country. “Murder will out,” is an old and hackneyed saying. It really started to come out, however, when the Germans hit an observation post on the Allied Front. That chance shot was the means of upsetting a coroner’s verdict of two years previously on the murder of Juan Montauban. I have seldom had the privilege of reading such an excellent first novel; it is full of sustained interest, entertainingly written, and although I have grown rather wearied of murders and detectives 1 found myself deeply interested in The Tin Tree. It is a novel which I can recommend, and a novel by an author of whom I hope to hear more.

Nottingham Journal (12 September 1930): A FIRST MURDER MYSTERY.

Generally speaking, one can safely say that first novels enter one of two classes. Either the novelist produces a work of rich worth and then fails to maintain the early promise of his initial effort into the world of letters, or in that first effort one can discern an aptitude for story-telling which gives rise to the belief that with maturity will come even better efforts.

Excluded from this generalisation, of course, are the would-be authors who never should have wasted ink.

In the second category I would place James Quince, for in this, his first book, one can discern the flair tor telling a tale. It seems a pity therefore that the characters in quite a cleverly constructed story are of the somewhat hackneyed type. True, I failed to place the murderer, but that particular criminal was too outrageously innocent.

The story opens in a war observation post, where a chance shot by German shell forces a confession from one of the two occupants, who believes, with the rest of the world, he is guilty of an old murder. That the murder was accidental is obvious, and the tracking of the real deliberate murderer is merely the accompaniment to the effort to prove the innocent man guilty. The inevitable false conclusions are introduced, and these are all probable and ingenious. It is only in telling the truth that the author has become improbable and ingenuous.

Sheffield Independent (22 September 1930): The Tin Tree gives us something refreshingly new in murder mystery fiction. The story opens in front of Bapaume when a shell hits a tin tree that has been erected as an observation post. In the moments that follow the officer in charge learns that his companion, a gunner, is really a baronet hiding away with a murder charge over his head, and that he is engaged to the girl the officer loves. Back in England and out of hospital, the officer sets to work and proves his gunner innocent. Every chapter is bright and entertaining, and the charming love story running through the book gives a piquant interest. It is a first novel and a successful one.

Western Morning News (P.H., 22 September 1930): Is there anything in the air of Devonshire which makes that county a suitable setting for stories of crime and mystery? Perhaps authors realize that its normally peaceful and picturesque background affords a fine contrast to a tale of violence and bloodshed. However that may be, two exceptionally well-written novels of this kind have just been published, neither of which can be dismissed as mere “thrillers”. In The Tin Tree Mr. James Quince shows an intimate knowledge both of Devonshire and of Devonshire folk; and he has contrived with real skill to keep his reader’s attention held by the mystery of a particularly baffling murder while giving full play to his evident love for a county of which he surely must be a native. From every point of view The Tin Tree is a fine, workmanlike novel, which everyone will enjoy. The solution of his puzzle is a real surprise. More surprising still is the revelation of the motive for the murder.

The Devon and Exeter Gazette (23 September 1930): Here we have a most fascinating novel. It is one which will appeal especially to Devonshire readers for it has a strong local flavour. The drama opens “somewhere on the front of Bapaume” during the war where a tin tree, well camouflaged, is used as an O.P. Two of the occupants of the tree are an artillery officer who relates the story and Gunner Rachelson, a soldier who is more or less an enigma to the officer, Lieutenant Budockshed. The latter’s interest in the gunner is renewed by the man revealing something about his early days to the lieutenant. He learns that Rachelson is an assumed name for John Montauban, a nephew of Sir Michael Montauban, who had met a violent death, and that John had disappeared after the murder, suspicious circumstances making it too dangerous for him to remain in the country. So he lost his identity among the thousands of men who went to France to fight for the honour of Old England. Mr. Quince relates in a masterly manner details of how the Montaubans came to Devonshire from Spain in the reign of George III. One married a Devonshire girl, one of the Champernownes, and bought a place in the county, Pecheford Monachorum, near Great Pecheton, and he and his sucessors became English county squires in turn. One, Sir Michael, married a Spanish lady – a mental defective. They had a son – not an idiot like the mother – and in time Juan came into the property and resided at Pecheford. John Montauban managed the estate for Juan. Juan’s loose conduct brought trouble and John made up his mind to have it out with the man. When Juan was found dead with frightful head injuries John was suspected. The shelling of the tin tree is the starting point of the unravelling of a thrilling and mysterious tragedy. The story is well conceived. As the reader meets with local names – Exeter, Honiton, Chard, Buckfastleigh, and others – the interest in the book is heightened. Then a charming love story is interwoven. Altogether The Tin Tree is bound to give pleasure to readers. It is a first novel – and I shall look forward to making a still closer acquaintance with Mr. Quince who shows so much promise.

Birmingham Daily Gazette (“Baskerville”, 2 October 1930): Mr. James Quince in The Tin Tree gives us a well-knit story of a West Country murder just before the war, and the surprising, but quite creditable solution afterwards.

Northern Whig (1 November 1930): The Tin Tree, we are warned, is not a war novel; perhaps it might be appropriately labelled detective – that is, if one thought it worth while to think about it at all. Mr. Quince drags out the suspense of discovery of the murder of Jean Montaubon inordinately. The book is the usual stock-in-trade business of strong, silent hero and never-cease-to-love-you heroine – a sloppy, mawkish concoction.

The Bystander (Ralph Straus, 31 December 1930): It is the third story, however, which could pass through the Hollywood sieve almost unchanged. The Tin Tree is a first novel by James Quince, the pseudonym, I fancy, of a West Country clergyman. And it is one of those wildly romantic affairs, teeming with improbabilities, which, on account of its pleasant writing and good humour, you are willing to accept (for the time being) as the truth. I cannot remember another novel which makes use of so many of the good old “situations” and yet seems to be something new. A baronet accused of murder and masquerading as a Cockney gunner in the War; an Earl’s daughter who loses her memory; a mysterious lady from Portugal, who might be a spy, and certainly pretends to read fortunes in a crystal; a young rustic who sees red when animals are cruelly treated – these are but a few of the ingredients in this singularly succulent pie.

A very commonplace “thriller,” you think? In a way I suppose it is, but this James Quince has a way with him. He sweeps you on. The highbrows will scoff, but they will not put the book down. They may even be seduced into making any number of guesses about the murderer’s identity – guesses, by the way, which will not be correct. And I see no particular reason why the author should not write a really good novel about life as most of us find it. I hope that he will. Meanwhile there is The Tin Tree to wile away an idle hour very agreeably indeed.

Public Opinion: Off the beaten track … the solution is ingenious. He makes a good start.

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