First published: UK, Collins, 1935; US, Doubleday Doran, 1935
The narrative of Doctor Tancred Begins is related by Ben Tancred’s close friend, Paul Graham, who, convalescing in the village of Polruan, in Cornwall, stumbles at once into a love affair and a crime mystery, and calls upon Dr. Tancred for help. The tracking of old Simon Pendexter’s murderer brings on to the scene not only Dr. Tancred but also our old acquaintance, Henry Wilson, not yet a Superintendent, but a plain Detective-Sergeant from Scotland Yard. Simon and his sister, Sarah Pendexter, are rare “characters”, and the interest of the story turns largely on Simon’s two stepchildren, Helen and Rupert.
A STRANGE, MACABRE SAGA
The name of the Coles on a mystery story has come to be a guarantee of bafflement and entertainment. Sound and consistent writers of stories that satisfy, their public increases with each book they publish.
In this grim tale of the Pendexters of Blackbottle House, Cornwall, the authors have branched out into a type of narrative that is unique and eminently suited to their talent.
It is a stark story, told in retrospect. Twenty-five years ago, within the forbidding home of old Simon Pendexter, violent emotions, long suppressed, had broken loose. The result had been old Simon’s sudden and violent death. Doctor Tancred was called in to make a discreet investigation that followed a tenuous thread of clues, consisting solely of a strange bottle, a box of crystals hidden in a chimney, and the complex relationships existing between the weird members of old Simon’s household. It was an investigation that had been strangely inconclusive. And now, after twenty-five years during which those violent emotions have lain dormant but have not died, comes the story of the fingerprint found on a page of an encyclopaedia, and the final fragment of the puzzle is fitted into place.
Here is a strange and powerful story, unique in its presentation, mysterious in plot, and dramatic in its astounding climax.
The first book of the Pendexter Saga, in which Simon Pendexter, a retired master-builder, suffers an attempt on his life and is subsequently poisoned. His step-daughter, with whom the priggish young Watson is infatuated, is arrested but released. Although the real murderer is obvious from the start, neither the young Wilson nor the colourless Dr. Tancred succeed in proving their case, or even in doing much detecting. Instead, there are repetitions of the evidence ad nauseam, too much speculation without substance, so that the plot revolves without ever advancing.
Observer (30th May 1935):
This book is only the beginning of the story, and the discovery that the tale is to continue over a further period of twenty-five years and to extend into one or more further volumes may fill the reader with something approaching depression. Somebody dug under the cliff path leading from Simon Pendexter’s house near Fowey to the shore and, having failed to kill Simon in this way, succeeded in poisoning him a few days later. We hardly suppose that the culprit is the person indicated (but not convicted) as such in this volume, but we do not greatly care. The plodding pages fail to charm by style or to interest by character, and the exiguous puzzle is buried in the heavy folds of narrative. This is an example of the not uncommon but mistaken method of making a detective story out of several suspects and one inexplicable point without regard to swift movement, ingenuity in development or liveliness in style.
New Statesman (Ralph Partridge, 1st June 1935):
Dr. Tancred Begins and shows every sign of going on as long as the patience of a long-suffering public will permit. “A tall, impressive figure, big-built without the smallest tendency to fatness, and obviously very strong.” And, as you might guess, he has a big head too, with shaggy brown hair, which he carries a little forward and on one side as he walks. But he is obviously not very strong in the head if his conduct of his first case is a fair sample of his future achievement. In an analysis of the case in one of the last chapters the various suspects are all passed in review and Big Ben “washes out” one after another for no better reason than the fact that he judges them incapable of such a crime as poisoning an unpleasant old man whom they all disliked. His pathetic inability to bring home the murderer is accentuated by the glaring conspicuousness of the guilty party, who has been staring the reader and Big Ben in the face from the first.
Spectator (5th July 1935):
The next two books are dull and laboured… [The other is E.R. Punshon’s Death of a Beauty Queen.] Punshon’s writing is turgid, and his detective without equal in stupidity. Not quite without equal, perhaps, for Dr. Tancred runs him close. This misty figure has only begun what may well prove to be an interminable series of alleged adventures. This first volume, subtitled “The First Canto of the Pendexter Saga”, peters out with the ominous words “To be continued”. In one sense it might well be continued, sine little or nothing is discovered or determined at its close. The substance of the whole book would scarcely fill one of Mr. Queen’s less eventful chapters; the style is cumbersome and the effect of the whole is foggy:
“They are but shadows hunting shadows,
Phantom fish in waters drear and dim.”
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 25th August 1935, 320w):
This book is definitely worth while, introducing, as it does a more than ordinarily acute detective opposed by an uncommonly clever and ingenious criminal.