Casual Slaughters (James Quince)

  • By James Quince
  • First published: UK: Ivor Nicholson and Watson, 1935

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Alright, Casual Slaughters, a book it seems everyone but me adores. Curt Evans placed it among his 150 favourite Golden Age detective novels; Martin Edwards thinks it “deserves to be rescued from literary oblivion”; and newspaper reviews of the time praised its humour and characterisation.

I found it lightweight, and sporadically amusing. It’s difficult to avoid a feeling of déjà lu; this is the fourth (at least) English village mystery by a minor writer I’ve read this year. This one has a headless corpse, found buried in a churchyard, on top of another grave.

Besides, English village mysteries tend to be parochial, revolving around church, flower shows, poachers, and farmers. This one is particularly so; the detectives (plural) are the Parish Church Council. Led by the council secretary, a retired naval officer who breezily narrates the story, they follow a series of rather simple clues.

There is little mystery about the first murderer, who dies halfway through. The second ‘murder’ is accident, and smacks of the British seaside postcard: n sng jbzna fvgf ba uvf snpr, naq fzbguref uvz jvgu ure nefr. Jryy, abg dhvgr; ur qvrf bs n urneg nggnpx, juvyr fur fvgf ba uvz, but still. In ROT13, for those who want to avoid spoilers, but it’s one of the stupidest solutions I’ve ever encountered. “Accidental judgements, casual slaughters” make for an unsatisfying detective story.

The idea of concealing the victim’s skull among the ‘Prehistoric Devonian Man’ artefacts comes from Gladys Mitchell’s Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop (1929).

The funniest line, incidentally, is unintentional: “We were sitting in the study with our minds on coke.” (Chapter II)

Contemporary reviews

Daily Mirror (25th February 1935): A lively, amusing and swiftly moving tale of strange goings-on in a Devon churchyard. Somebody put someone (without a head) in somebody else’s grave. A grisly situation! Still, Mr. Quince does not take a very serious view of the case. He leaves that to the Parochial Council. The result is a most refreshing and entertaining change from the ordinary mystery story, which seldom contains such witty dialogue and neat characterisation as are to be found here.

Liverpool Echo (1st March 1935): The most avid of thriller-addicts can find little at which to grumble in this month’s batch of his favourite brand of fiction. May I first recommend you to make a note, without delay, of Mr. James Quince’s new story, Casual Slaughters. A typical Devon village, peopled by characters who might have stepped out of an Eden Philpotts play, is terorised by two mysterious murders. County police authorities are eventually satisfied as to their origin, but the parochial church council are not, and, taking over the notes of the reluctantly-departing Scotland Yard inspector, proceed to rush in where Chief Constables fear to tread!

This is something more than a thriller. It is a lifelike and delicious portrait of men and women reacting, as they would react in that delectable county, to a chain of happenings as gruesomely constructed as they are lightly and humorously described.

The Daily Telegraph (James Hilton, 5th March 1935): FUN AND FEARFULNESS
This must be a good work, for here is another novel – Casual Slaughters, by James Quince – which is of quite unusual merit. It is a murder-detective story with all sorts of differences, the chief being that, unlike most of its class, it contains characters who are of interest apart from what happens to them. Mr. Quince stages his murder in a Devonshire village and gives us a complete gallery of local portraits – parson, doctor, blacksmith, postmistress, sexton, and so on – all drawn with a very deft humour that brings them sharply to life.

From the opening chapter, in which the Parochial Church Council of Bishop’s Pecheford decide to level the mound of one of the graves in the churchyard, the blend of fun and fearfulness never flags; a queer blend, when you come to think about it, but one for which we have an educated palate nowadays.

The plot is ingenious, the climax is exciting, and the murderer is not easily guessed in advance; the murderer, moreover, is a model of effective story-telling. Casual Slaughters can be warmly recommended; it is one of the very few detective-novels one might possibly re-read.

Western Daily Press (6th March 1935): Mr. James Quince tells a good story, and in Casual Slaughters he maintains his reputation. Not only is the plot ingenious, but his characters – especially those country born – are drawn with faithfulness. Who would have thought that the decision reached by the parish council after so much trouble, that first steps to tidy the churchyard, the levelling of grave mounds, would have led to the discovery of a murder upon which in course of time is added another mystery. The rector, the retired naval officer, and the village elders take up their responsibilities gallantly, and despite the seriousness of the situation, the author with a deft touch is able to introduce that quaint humour which all who have had any associations with country life will recognise, and to which they will be responsive. The unravelling of the second mystery after the police had retired, to allay fears and for the honour of the village, is a delightful piece of work. An enjoyable book.

Daily Herald (Roger Pippett, 21st March 1935): Down in a quiet West Country village the parochial council decided that it was high time the churchyard was tidied up. Which meant, among other matters, the levelling of certain grassy mounds.

No sooner had the sexton got to work with his spade than the queerest things began to happen. “Calamities of a horrid and unexpected sort,” as the Rector put it.

But all’s well that ends well. And this original, blood-curdling tragicomedy ends very well indeed.

Northern Whig (25th March 1935): Casual Slaughters, by James Quince, is a crime story with rural setting, in which sensationalism is pleasantly seasoned with humour. A headless corpse is found in the mound above a grave in a Devonshire village churchyard. It proves to be that of the doctor, who is missing, and his locum tenens is suspected. But a dead body with a broken arm is found in the same grave in which the other corpse was buried, with one the arms broken. The man from Scotland Yard who is called in leaves the problem unsolved, and then the Parochial Council takes up the investigation. This is an original idea, and is humorously worked out. The village amateurs meet with better fortune than the Scotland Yard professional, and succeed in clearing up the mystery. Their modus operandi is unconventional and richly comical, but its success is sufficient justification.

The Courier and Advertiser (23rd April 1935): The discovery of a headless corpse in a village burial ground, and the realisation that murder has been committed on their doorstep results in the Parochial Church Council stepping in where Scotland Yard fears to tread. How these local celebrities solve a baffling mystery is so original that one cannot but be grateful to Mr. Quince for his new method of handling old material.

Western Morning News (A.G.W., 29th April 1935): When the Parochial Church Council of Bishop’s Pecheford – somewhere in Devonshire – decided that mounds over old graves in their churchyard should be levelled, as a first step towards reducing that wilderness to some semblance of order, they little thought it would lead to the discovery of murder which would so terrorize the village that no one would venture out alone night.

But Bishop’s Pecheford was fortunate in having a rector who would have been a credit to the C.I.D., and a number of persistent parishioners who, after Scotland Yard and the county police had given it up, succeeded in unravelling the mystery of “the man in the mound”.

James Quince’s Casual Slaughters is an original murder mystery, with sufficiently gruesome details, but it is in the telling that the writer scores. His village characters, seen through the eyes of an “axed” lieutenant-commander of H.M, Navy and secretary of the Parish Council, are a remarkable collection, and the fact that one mystery is solved halfway through the volume does not matter, as the Parish Council are left with an even greater problem.

Torquemada, Observer: We would give a dozen longer and more complicated plots for this one exquisitely carnal, bloody and unnatural comedy.

One thought on “Casual Slaughters (James Quince)

  1. I have, from somewhere, the impression that this is one I want to read, but I’ve never rushed to it — it’s OOP as best I know — and this critical response of yours has helped to cool my ardour and allow me to back-burner this even further. Ten years from now I might stumble across it in a dusty corner of a bookshop…and I feel better about that now. Thanks, Nick!


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