- By Miles Burton
- First published: UK: Collins, 1936. No US publication.
For once, Inspector Arnold is on the scene before the murder occurs. He is a guest at the Three Crowns, Appleford, when the Downchester Bowling Association, in dazzling royal blue and broad-brimmed hats, arrives. While the bowlers have lunch, curmudgeonly Josiah Elvidge sits in the lounge, napping and drinking his lemon squash. But someone has laced it with oxalic acid – and Inspector Arnold and his friend Desmond Merrion must investigate the murder of a chemist…
One of Burton’s rarer works, this is a typical example of his workmanlike approach: solid, logical, and often uninspired. Merrion and Arnold check the suspects’ movements around Avonshire by motorcoach, car, and bus, but despite all the travel, and indeed the legwork, the plot is pedestrian. Inflatable penguins and a multiplication of containers of oxalic acid aside, there’s little of interest. The murderer gradually becomes obvious sixty or seventy pages before the dénouement; the only novelty is that “Mr. Jones” is one of Street’s few ROT13 zheqrerffrf.
The book’s reception was lukewarm. While Nicholas Blake thought it “the best book of [Burton’s] I have read”, E. R. Punshon thought it competent and sound, but not ingenious, and Ralph Partridge was scathing:
Mr. Miles Burton’s books make up in quantity what they lack in quality. Murder of a Chemist is the second detective story of his to come out within four months, and just manages to be tolerable. The Inspector French formula that Mr. Wills Crofts administers with discretion becomes merely devitalising in heavy doses, and Mr. Burton may have to call his next book Death of my Public if he goes on at this rate.
Mr. Josiah Elvidge, by profession a chemist, in his spare time a member of the Downchester Bowling Association and by local repute an annoying man, reached for his lemonade. He drank, gulped, twitched and a moment later lay crumpled up in his chair, the victim of a deadly poison. A worried hotel manager hastily summoned Inspector Arnold of the Yard, who was partaking of an excellent lunch in the dining-room. Arnold, at first annoyed at being disturbed, soon found the extreme interest of the case arousing in him all his powers of observation. Was it Murder or Suicide? Why were crystals of the poison found in so many unlikely places? Which of the members of the ridiculous Bowling Club would it be possible to suspect? Arnold’s old friend Desmond Merrion arrives opportunely on the scene, and together they come to a conclusion both startling and complex. Mr. Burton goes to the country for his stories, and finds there, amid the quiet serenity of ancient hamlets and market towns, astounding mysteries, violent passions and calculated enmity.
Spectator (Nicholas Blake, 24th April 1936): Mr. Burton, on the other hand [and unlike Ethel Lina White], is a pillar of orthodoxy. He gives us the crime, the whole crime, and nothing but the crime. Of those writers following in the austere path of Freeman Wills Crofts, he is among the best; and Murder of a Chemist is the best book of his I have read. Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion make a good team; they have mellowed since first we met them, without losing their tenacity and acumen, both of which are severely tested before the riddle of Josiah Elridge’s death is solved. Elridge is a chemist, an unpleasing man addicted to lemon squash, which very properly becomes the medium of his destruction. The hotel where he is poisoned is overrun by his fellow members of the Downchester Bowling Association; apart from the evil passion this game must generate and the fearful example it sets of not running straight, they present the detectives with a field of some fifty suspects for a start. Arnold, however, once he gets his teeth into the Clue of the Punctured Penguin, slowly narrows the issue down, aided by some close and brilliant reasoning on Merrion’s part. A photograph of the members of the Bowling Club would have accelerated the solution: and one alibi should surely have been investigated sooner. Otherwise, no fault can be found with the mechanics. I admire Mr. Burton’s knack of flattering the reader on occasion by allowing him to think about ten seconds quicker than either of the talented detectives.
The Manchester Guardian (E. R. Punshon, 12th May 1936): Are “competent” and “sound” entirely complimentary epithets to apply to a story? They are certainly those that spring to the mind when considering the work of Mr. Miles Burton, whose Murder of a Chemist may be warmly recommended to those who ask of a detective novel no more than that it should be – well, a detective novel. An elderly owner of a prosperous chemist’s shop is poisoned with oxalic acid, and investigation is baffled by the fact that for every suspect in turn a clear alibi seems to be established. The careful, well-thought-out process by which this difficulty is resolved can be followed with considerable interest. Mr. Burton does not trouble much about characterisation, and he hardly shows outstanding ingenuity in the construction of his plots, but he does succeed in keeping his readers interested, nor is he ever guilty of extravagances or improbabilities – though one may doubt whether a victim dying the extremely painful death oxalic acid causes would be content to expire comfortably in his armchair, uttering apparently no more than a few protesting groans.
New Statesman & Nation (Ralph Partridge, 23rd May 1936): Mr. Miles Burton’s books make up in quantity what they lack in quality. Murder of a Chemist is the second detective story of his to come out within four months, and just manages to be tolerable. The Inspector French formula that Mr. Wills Crofts administers with discretion becomes merely devitalising in heavy doses, and Mr. Burton may have to call his next book Death of my Public if he goes on at this rate.
Evening News: Exciting … entertaining reading.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): A representative early Burton. Arnold is not quite such an oaf as he subsequently became, though he does “spend an hour or two … jotting down a few ideas”. Merrion comes in promptly, and is full of ideas, some good. The “chemist” is, of course, a pharmacist, and he dies on p. 13. The detection is chiefly concerned with the alibis arising from journeys by car and train of a large party on tour, and timetables and other facilities are nicely involved. The poison is the oxalic acid so popular in the thirties.
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