The Secret of High Eldersham (Miles Burton)

By Miles Burton

First published: UK, Collins, 1930; US, Mystery League Inc., as The Mystery of High Eldersham

More of a thriller than a detective story, as Merrion and Inspector Young (no Arnold yet) try to stop a gang of modern-day witches and smugglers.  Lots of messing about in boats.

Blurb (UK)

Constable Viney of High Eldersham in East Anglia was cycling home on the last night of March.  He stopped at the Rose and Crown inn for a chat with Whitehead, the landlord, and found the latter a blood-soaked corpse.  Detective Inspector Young was sent from Scotland Yard to help the local police.  He soon realised the queerness of East Anglia folk in general and those of High Eldersham in particular.  It was Viney who told him, “Strangers don’t never prosper in High Eldersham,” and Whitehead had been a “stranger”.  Desmond Merrion, a rich bachelor, comes to be Young’s unofficial assistant.  In the cottage of Mrs. Porch he finds—a mommett!  And this tells him that High Eldersham is a place of hateful mysteries.  The gentry and peasantry of the place are all involved.  Sir William and Mavis Overton, Doctor Padfield, Laurence Hollesley—what parts can these possibly have played in the murder of a publican?  People who read of the old witch-trials would be horrified to come upon the witch-cult persisting in modern England.  But there are queer survivals of ancient rites in rural England, and there is not a little foundation in fact for the sinister Secret of High Eldersham which Merrion tracked down to the altar on the island.

Blurb (US)

Here is an enthralling tale of Black Magic – of the sinister survivals of ancient rites and witchcraft still to be found in certain parts of rural England, for believe it or not, there is more than a little fact in this story from the stirring pen of Miles Burton.

To Scotland Yard, the brutal murder of the keeper of the Rose and Crown Tavern in little High Eldersham seemed just another case, until the Detective Inspector Young with his initial investigation discovered a series of weird clues that resulted in his sending for Desmond Merrion, wealthy sportsman and criminologist.  Both Young and Merrion were warned by Constable Viney of the local police that “strangers don’t never prosper in High Eldersham” – and the tavern keeper had been a “stranger.”

Merrion soon stumbled upon a paramount bit of evidence in the wax figure, pierced by a needle in one of the village cottages, and from that point on  came almost to believe himself insane at what the trail finally led to.

In the characterizations of Sir William and Mavis Overton, Doctor Padfield, and Laurence Hollesley, the amateur sleuth will find much to delight in, and even the most experienced reader will follow with bated breath the rapid development of the plot.  Certainly the episodes of the cemetery and the island altar will provide thrills that are not often found in the average detective tale.

The Secret of High Eldersham has just been published in England by the Crime Club at the English price equivalent to $1.00, and was selected there as was the case with your Editors because of its unique plot and high quality of craftsmanship.  In his second book Mr. Burton will undoubtedly add many enthusiastic readers to those who acclaimed his The Hardway Diamonds Mystery.

Contemporary reviews

Sydney Morning Herald (20th February 1931):

In this, his latest “shocker”, Miles Burton makes skilful use of queer superstitions and mysterious rites that still prevail in certain parts of Britain.  A paper recently read before the British Association gave some account of survivals of the “black art” in rural Wales.  Mr. Burton’s rousing tale tells of sinister doings in East Anglia, where murder and mystery attach to the ceremonies of a ruthless sect which puts into force certain theories of the ancient witch-cult.  There is dirty work in a village public house, a curious taciturnity amongst local notabilities who are heavily involved and weird ritual when the moon is full round a woodland altar.  The tale is neatly contrived and well written.

Boston Transcript (3rd July 1931, 230w):

The climax, developing from a scene in the village cemetery at midnight, to a shaggy figure presiding over a black altar upon a secret island in the river, provides a thrill that is only too rarely found in these days of logical, analytical and scientific detective tales.  Unique as the plot is, this quality is matched by the author’s skill in characterisation and in his literary craftsmanship.