By Miles Burton
First published: UK, Collins, 1938; US, Doubleday, 1938
Recommended! Norse mythology and espionage in a tangled case. You should know who as soon as you spot the murderer’s obviously staged alibi.
The Reverend Peter Bordesly, Rector of Pascombe, had found in the study of astronomy not only an entrancing hobby but a relief from the torture of insomnia. What more natural pursuit for a clergyman than to turn his gaze heavenwards and survey the spacious firmament on high. And so it came to pass that on a certain November night, when most people were sound asleep, the Rector noticed a cottage on fire and gave the alarm. When the flames were subdued, a startling discovery was made. The charred body of a man lay buried in the debris. Near the body were found a pair of gold cuff-links and a small piece of platinum bearing the figure of a cat. Slender clues indeed, but sufficient to start Inspector Arnold on a trail of brilliant investigation.
Because he suffered from insomnia, the Rev. Peter Bordesley was the first person to turn in the alarm that Lughorse Cottage was a mass of flames, and he happened to be on hand when the local police found the body of a man in the smouldering ruins. The good parson also noticed an oak stake, with mistletoe wound around it, and, knowing his Norse mythology, was able to interpret the whole peculiar business as a modern enactment of the Balder legend. When Scotland Yard was called in and discovered that the murdered man had been James Henry Fenchurch of the Defense Ministry, whose death and possible treachery became a matter of national importance, the Rev. Bordesley was able to point the way for the whole investigation.
Inspector Arnold of the Yard, and his amateur assistant, Desmond Merrion, were among the many who were frantically trying to find out whether, before he died, Fenchurch had divulged the air defence plans with which he had been trusted. A platinum cat, broken from a pin, was found among the ruins of Lughorse Cottage, and Merrion later was to find the pin from which the cat had been broken. The other actors in the Balder legend were located, but international agents are hard to control with extradition papers, and it was only when Merrion, tracing an old photograph, found the personal motives behind the murder, that the mystery was solved.
To Miles Burton’s clever, meticulously plotted story is added international intrigue, London official society, and unusually sympathetic characterisation, to make this by far the author’s best book.
Times Literary Supplement (Maurice Percy Ashley, 30th July 1938): In The Platinum Cat we revert to the sober beat of the English detective story. Mr. Miles Burton may be relied upon for a well-planned murder, and in this case he embodies a topical touch by making the victim a Civil Servant, named Fenchurch, who is one of the few persons who share the secret of the defence plans of London. The sole aim of Lord Hawkensbury, the Minister for Defence, is to ensure that the secret has not reached a potential enemy, and so there is a double problem: did Fenchurch sell the secret and who murdered him? The body is found burnt in a lonely cottage, and in due course Inspector Arnold and his sharp friend Desmond Merrion come into the case. Merrion is a curious detective, for he relies greatly on instinct. On this occasion he starts by guessing brilliantly on the basis of slender clues and then equally brilliantly rejects the guesses of Inspector Arnold, based on rather more substantial clues. When it is learned that a Bolshevist agent has been in communication with Fenchurch there does not seem to be much hope for the Minister of Defence’s secret, but after the murderer has obligingly confessed to him we are relieved to discover that the plans remain intact. Hence Lord Hawkensbury tells Scotland Yard to give up bothering, and Merrion is left to have one more brilliant guess. This is a competent Beta Plus story.
Observer (Maurice Richardson, 31st July 1938): The Platinum Cat is straightforward, and though undistinguished and weak in attack, it is easy to read. The burnt body belongs to a magnificently handsome civil servant who had been selling defence secrets. Merrion and his chum, Inspector Arnold, patiently unravel all the essential clues, but it is left to the Minister, an alarmingly dictatorial figure, to hear the real truth.
Sat R of Lit (24th September 1938, 40w): Interesting spectacle of several clever investigators reaching same conclusions by different methods, plus better than average international spy yarn. Able.
NY Times (Isaac Anderson, 25th September 1938, 200w): This story is without doubt Miles Burton’s best and one of this season’s most baffling mysteries.