Midsummer Murder (Clifford Witting)


A very early serial-killer-loose-in-an-English-country-town story (six years after Philip MacDonald’s Murder Gone Mad).  Halfway between humdrum (emphasis on detection, including detailed work to determine the victim’s position when shot) and arty (quotations, wit verging on occasional facetiousness).  Excellent plot construction—e.g., bringing Baggs forward.  Titanic misdirection —V jnf pregnva gur zheqrere jnf Snedhunefba (W.R.S., bire-urycshy bhgfvqre jub vfa’g fhfcrpgrq – so the real murderer’s identity was a shock.


BLURB

1937 Hodder & Stoughton

During the summer previous to the events recorded by John Rutherford in Murder in Blue, there took place in Paulsfield a series of happenings to which Police-Sergeant Martin was afterwards to refer as “that ’orrible to-do in the Square.” It has hitherto been the author’s fixed determination to write nothing on that subject: the whole thing seemed too extravagantly silly to be believed. But since that painstaking historian, John Rutherford, saw fit to pass on a casual remark by the Sergeant, the demands to hear more about the to-do in the Square have become increasingly pressing; and, after all, for those who died in that July and for those who lived on, in fear of their lives, through those flaming days and sulky nights, and in particular for Detective-Inspector Charlton, it was anything but silly. So the story shall be set down.

It began on the first Tuesday in July, which was market-day in Paulsfield…


CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Times Literary Supplement (George Palmer, 23rd October 1937): A hint, at the very end of the book, suggests that the author has qualms about the acceptability of the motive-power which directs the actions of his killer.  But it would be a most ungrateful reader who could make any such objection about one of the best-constructed and most entertaining mysteries that has appeared for many a day.  A small market-town is the scene of a succession of murders and attempted murders.  The mass of detailed inquiry, which eventually terminates in a surprising solution, is handled by the police in a straightforward and intelligent manner.  Their activities are described with a discrimination which commands attention, but never bores.

Observer (Torquemada, 21st November 1937): On Clifford Witting’s first appearance I recognised him as a born writer who had not yet become a teller of tales.  Midsummer Murder shows that while, naturally, remaining the first he has now become the second.  His appealing humour and gift of noticing remains; but he seems in danger of developing one blemish from which Murder in Blue was free.  He, in common with too many fellow detective writers, gives an impression of being blasé about the deaths he makes us suffer.  He should assume a horror if he has it not, otherwise our blood runs temperately and we do not glance in apprehension from one character to another even when we know there is a mass murderer, almost certainly of a doubtful kind, at work by our side in pleasant little Paulsfield.  I must say that I smelled murder on X. very soon after we were introduced, and was a little impatient with Inspector Charlton for so diffusing his attention.

Manchester Guardian (E.R. Punshon, 23rd November 1937): At the end of Midsummer Murder, the author, Mr. Clifford Witting, remarks that a certain group of writers, with whom he associates the name of Mr. E.C. Bentley, have expressed their disapproval of the homicidal maniac theme in the detective novel.  That, however, is no mere arbitrary rule of self-appointed dictators, but simply a recognition of the fact that logic and reason are essential to the detective novel and that when homicidal mania comes in at the door logic and reason fly out at the window.  Plainly that does not affect the further consideration that the homicidal maniac resembles an escaped tiger and that of the hunting down of an escaped tiger an exciting tale may be told.  Mr. Witting’s methods are a trifle too leisurely, his characters a trifle too fond of airy persiflage, for the full tension of this series of killings in a quiet country town to be realised, though in one or two scenes, as when the inspector walks across the market-place, the authentic thrill is reached.  As Mr. Witting expresses obligation to a fire-arms expert, one wonders what that expert thinks of the feats of marksmanship here attributed to a person who apparently had never before fired a shot.

Sunday Times: He is surely destined to be an uncommonly good writer of detective stories.

Philip Hewitt-Myring, News Chronicle: One of the most jauntily entertaining books one has read for a long time. I liked this witty and phantasticated tale enormously.

Daily Mirror: This is good, with the suspense kept up very well until the end – and then a climax and solution which should catch you as unprepared as it did me.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): A well-wrought affair, which is fun to read, but which ends badly from lack of a good motive.  Det. Insp. Charlton and Sgt. Martin are pleasant companions to the reader and to each other.  Note that this second work far surpasses anything one could have expected from his first.