- By Miles Burton
- First published: UK: Collins, 1940; US: Doubleday, 1941, as Vacancy with Corpse
Little in the way of atmosphere or characterization, but the accumulation of facts makes for absorbing reading.
When Major Pontefract retired from the Indian Army he dreamt of the blissful tranquillity of English country life, enjoyed wistful pipe dreams not perhaps of three acres and a cow but at any rate of one acre and a score or more of fine Buff Orpingtons. Mrs. Pontefract’s thoughts, on the other hand, had run to a nice flat in town. “Besides dear, think how you’d enjoy being close to your club,” was the final argument that tipped the scale. And so the gallant major lost his last campaign, and exchanged hunting the wild boar for the tamer pursuit of flat hunting in Kensington. A suitably obsequious agent conducted him to his prize flat, to find to their horrified surprise that it already had a tenant, for Death had staked out a very definite claim—a prior claim to that very desirable flat. Mr. Miles Burton is to be congratulated on a splendidly told detective story.
A jerry-built, false-front apartment house may have many unpleasant secrets which time will divulge to the tenants, but it is seldom that a vacant apartment offers as an attraction a corpse in the front hall. Certainly conservative Major and Mrs. Pontefract would have none of an apartment so inhabited.
But Scotland Yard could not withdraw from the case so abruptly. Inspector Arnold was assigned to investigate the murder of Edgar Staplehurst, managing director of the company that owned the apartment house, and after due identification, questioning of the tenants and investigation of the gentleman’s past life, Arnold felt that he had chapter and verse of the answer to who killed Edgar Staplehurst? He went off in full cry after the person who had signed “Millie” in green ink to a note found in the dead man’s pocket, but Desmond Merrion knocked the whole thing to pieces with the calm statement that the suspect in question might be guilty of murder, but never of a split infinitive.
Vacancy with Corpse combines action and humor with the meticulous plot that always characterizes a Miles Burton story.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 10th November 1940): Mr. Lorac and Mr. Burton are both eminently sound, painstaking detective story writers, with little to choose between them…
Mr. Burton is a scrupulous observer of the unities; his crimes are carefully constructed, and he never allows further developments to become diffuse. Death Takes a Flat, instead of the elderly couple who come to look over it. Stabbed corpse belongs to manager of the whole block. Obvious suspects are his ex-girl-friend and her drunken husband, but there are others. Patient investigation and alibi-checking by Inspector Arnold, but Desmond Merrion prevents him from making the supreme blunder. Solution manages to be a good surprise, despite suspect shortage. Told with Mr. Burton’s usual concentrated but infectious interest.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Willson Disher, 16th November 1940): More often than not the resolve to mystify at all costs dehumanises a story. Mr. Burton follows the prevailing fashion of creating characters who obviously have a motive for murder and are obviously innocent, and of fastening the guilt upon an “unsuspect” whose motive is not worth the risk of hard labour, let alone the hangman’s noose. There is, of course, something to be said for this defiance of probability. While it exasperates the ordinary reader it holds the attention of thorough-going enthusiasts who may be puzzled to decide, before Mr. Burton tells them, how the managing director of a huge block of flats came to be killed in one that was “to let”.
Books (Will Cuppy, 26th January 1941, 140w): This is recommended to those who like to study every aspect of a sensible case with an excellent deducer.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 26th January 1941, 190w): Vacancy With Corpse offers a good puzzle on which to test your wits.
Sat R of Lit (1st February 1941, 40w): Well played.