The Secret of High Eldersham (Miles Burton)

  • By Miles Burton
  • First published: UK: Collins, 1930; US: Mystery League, 1931

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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

Western Morning News (P. H., 1st December 1930): The Secret of High Eldersham, by Mr. Miles Burton – also a  Crime Club production – is another mystery story which is worth reading. The introduction of a certain amount of alleged black magic into the tale is perhaps a little unconvincing in these days, but it unquestionably adds liveliness and excitement to the plot for those readers who are prepared to accept what they are offered in not too critical a spirit. And the love story interwoven with the main plot adds a pleasant romantic touch to the book.

Aberdeen Press and Journal (6th December 1930): Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham is related in the same fashion [as Whitechurch’s Murder at the Pageant], but it has a novelty in its plot – a coven of witches in an East Anglian village. In the first few pages we find a hotelkeeper murdered, and the only clue is a mommet in a labourer’s cottage. It is not until the last few pages – 200 having intervened – that the murderer is revealed, and in the interim have some rare thrills.

The Derbyshire Times (6th December 1930): Visitors to the neighbourhood of High Eldersham are stricken with unaccountable headaches. Cows are smitten with unaccountable diseases, and at the full moon things happen which would keep the Chief Commissioner of Police awake for nights. The Secret of High Aldersham [sic] is a most entertaining book, with a most ingenious plot.

Nottingham Journal (23rd December 1930): THE BLACK ART.

And the secret took some unravelling too, leading Desmond Merrion, the rich amateur sleuth, and Detective-Inspector Young, of the “Yard” into adventures undreamed of when they set out to find the murderer of the landlord of the Rose and Crown. Little did they expect to unearth a present-day survival of witchcraft in its most wicked and frightful form, to say nothing of unmasking a dangerous drug gang. Mr. Burton has the happy knack of knowing how to tell a yarn that will keep one’s interest at full stretch to the last page, and the Crime Club’s choice is to be applauded.

The Sketch (L. P. Hartley, 7th January 1931): Witchcraft in East Anglia.

It is difficult to know to what extent superstition lingers among little educated people in the remoter parts of England. Mr. Burton’s book describes a village in East Anglia in which the practices of mediæval witchcraft still survive. The witchcraft motif is not a very uncommon one in detective stories, and it is generally made more than a little absurd; but Mr. Burton manages it with skill. His idea of making the orgies not an end in themselves, but a weapon in the hands of a clever and unscrupulous man to render possible a more remunerative crime, is ingenious and unusual.

Mr. Burton makes his antipathy towards the villain of the piece plain from early in the book. This is a flaw in the mystery, for it makes his identity too easily suspected. The idiocy of the hero is very conventional. If ever I find a hero who fails to fall in love with the only pretty girl in the book, and who does not venture alone in secret to a meeting of all the villains together, I shall regard him as not only a hero, but also a god.

Northern Whig (10th January 1931): “Strangers don’t never prosper in High Eldersham,” Constable Viney told Detective- Inspector Young, who was sent down to that village in East Anglia to investigate the death of Samuel Whitehead, landlord of the Rose and Crown, and one-time sergeant the Metropolitan Police. There is an even queerer air than this about High Eldersham, and Inspector Young comes across traces of witch-cult. That is The Secret of High Eldersham, and its author, Miles Burton, makes a capital yarn out of it. The murderer of Whitehead is revealed when the author desires, but before then the reader is held enthralled by as cleverly told a tale as he could desire. Murder, witchcraft, drugs, and love are all mixed a book which is well up to the Crime Club standard.

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.

Books (24th May 1931, 80w)

NY Times (Bruce Rae, 7th June 1931, 100w)

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.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): This tale of witchcraft in an English village remains the classic presentation of “doings”, which writers find it so tempting to combine with long-headed detection. Desmond Merrion makes his début here, meets his future wife, and joins the shrewd and capable Insp. Young in the elucidation of the mysterious happenings on an island near the river mouth. Boating interest is served, and cases of murder and smuggling are satisfactorily solved without benefit of any Insp. Arnold. Few stories of this era have stood up so well.