Murder in the Coal Hole (Miles Burton)

By Miles Burton

First published: UK, Collins, 1940; US, Doubleday, 1940, as Written in Dust

Good one.  Solid detection, plus more wit and better pacing than most of Burton’s.  Now try finding a copy!

Blurb (UK)

When Mr. Polesworth, the unpleasantly efficient school manager, was found dead in a gas-filled coalhole, Inspector Arnold was convinced that the explanation was a practical joke gone wrong.  But the nimble mind of Desmond Merrion soon proves that this simple theory is not the correct one, and from the slenderest clues he relentlessly builds up a case that sends a very clever murderer to the gallows.  Miles Burton is recognised as one of our most ingenious writers of detective stories, and in Murder in the Coalhole he gives us one of his best stories.

Blurb (US)

When Mrs. Day, the official cleaner of Middleden Elementary School, noticed three odd things in one morning, she was prepared for almost anything but what she found.  The gate to the school yard was open, there were dirty footprints on the otherwise immaculate schoolroom floor, and the key to the coal-cellar was missing.  Three unusual things had almost reduced Mrs. Day to expecting a cataclysm, but she managed a very healthy scream when she finally opened the coal-cellar, and found Mr. Polesworth, the school correspondent, reclining, quite dead, against the coal pile.

Since the deceased could not very well have closed the door on himself from the outside, there was not much chance that his death was suicide, consequently the local police asked for help and Scotland Yard sent there Inspector Arnold.  When Arnold in turn sent for his friend Desmond Merrion, Merrion drew a picture of a murderer with dust; coal dust, coke dust, road dust.  And from the picture that Merrion drew the investigation went forward, slowly, inevitably, discarding suspect after suspect, proving clue after clue valueless, until the guilty person, the one who hadn’t known what dust could prove, was caught.

Contemporary reviews

Observer (Maurice Richardson, 21st January 1940): Mr. Burton is a first-class exponent of the sound, careful school of detective story writing, than which nothing can be more satisfactory.  The victim of Murder in the Coal Hole is an elderly, venomous village busybody, secretary of the school management committee.  Suspicion is narrowed down until it looks as if the case is in the bag, and Merrion and Inspector Arnold have only got to break one alibi, but Mr. Burton accomplishes a most ingenious switch at the finish.  Detection is extremely thorough and deserves to be carefully followed all the way.  An excellent story in the great Crofts tradition, with carefully concentrated interest from start to finish.

Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 27th January 1940): Mr. Miles Burton maintains a remarkable standard of consistency in his detective stories, although it is perhaps surprising that his policeman Arnold, after so prolonged an association with the brilliant Merrion, does not shake off some of his Watsonish stupidity.  Murder in the Coalhole relates how the disagreeable “correspondent”, or clerk to the managers of an elementary school is found murdered on the school premises.  He has made many enemies, including the head mistress, and an impecunious nephew is waiting to inherit.  Arnold and Merrion arrive at the school to dissect characters and examine alibis.  The tale is fairly told and the reader is in the position to reach a correct solution.  It is perhaps a pity that in such a plausible novel the murdered man is pictured as writing a letter about the head mistress which would obviously have obtained for her enormous damages for libel.  It is incredible that so grossly libellous a letter should be represented as a motive for murder rather than action in a court of law.

Sat R of Lit (27th January 1940, 40w): Pedestrian.

Books (Will Cuppy, 28th January 1940, 140w): This is a baffler in the best British tradition, with soothing background, people and wordage.

NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 28th January 1940, 160w): The crime has been ingeniously planned and executed, and Merrion’s sleuthing ability is put to a severe test.  Miles Burton’s detective stories are always good, but is it necessary to make his Scotland Yard representative quite so stupid?