By Lynn Brock
First published: UK, Collins, 1924; US, Harpers, 1925. Published as The Barrington Mystery, Collins, 1932.
It’s too long at 300 odd pages, padded, and Colonel Gore’s detection is rather slow and muddled – but earnest and persevering, like the good soldier he is. What the book lacks in detection it makes up for in characterization. The suspects’ motives and relationships drive the story. The Colonel himself is infatuated with a rather silly woman, Barbara “Pickles” Melhuish, who has fallen into the blackmailing clutches of the unpleasant Barrington, and who tried to stab him with a knife smeared with an African poison a few hours before someone else succeeded.
Although A. E. W. Mason had written At the Villa Rose nearly fifteen years before, this is a breath of fresh air in an age when Freeman Wills Crofts‘ mechanical and mathematical algebra problems dominated the detective story, and Christie and Sayers were yet to make their mark, bringing much-needed humanity to the detective story. Brock’s approach here is rather like J. J. Connington‘s; the characters drive the story, but the detection is of the slow pondering or scientific school. Unfortunately, Brock can’t keep it up. The second half, much less interesting than the first, emphasises the detection, describing in great (and sometimes rather tedious) detail Colonel Gore’s following of a crony of Barrington’s, who is then stabbed and pushed off a cliff. Nevertheless, the solution, while not entirely unforeseen, is a good use of the least likely suspect gambit – for once, credible as well as largely surprising.
The name “Lynn Brock” is the nom de guerre of a very well-known writer, and he has adopted it for a series of mystery stories for which he has always had a strong desire to write.
Colonel Gore’s wedding present to Miss Barbara Lethbridge, known to her friends as “Pickles”, upon her marriage to Dr. Melhuish, was a trophy consisting of various weapons of offence and defence picked up by him in Africa. Shortly after his return to England in the following year, a Masai knife, which formed part of the trophy, played a prominent part in the death under mysterious circumstances of a gentlemanly scoundrel named Barrington, into whose clutches Mrs. Melhuish had fallen. Now the Colonel had always been very fond of “Pickles”, and he finds himself forced, in order to help her, to take up the entirely unexpected profession of detective. He makes plenty of blunders at first, but his ability rapidly increases, and the lust of the chase seizes upon him. Finally from the tangle of misleading threads he picks out the one which leads him to the truth.
Here is a novel fresh and exhilarating enough to provide the most inveterate detective-story fan with a new sensation.
Instead of any of the familiar investigators of crime is the charming figure of Colonel Gore, officer and gentleman. Just returned from serving in South Africa, Colonel Gore enters into what seems a perfectly conventional dinner party – but before the evening is over the stage is set for blackmail, illicit drug distribution and murder.
Drawn into the problem by his loyalty to Barbara Melhuish, the Colonel works through a series of fascinating and baffling clues to the identity of the criminal – an identity which comes as a complete surprise just before the end of the book, bringing a startling and unexpected thrill.
Lynn Brock, by the way, is the pen name which a noted author has adopted for a series of mystery stories which he has always wanted to write.
Times Literary Supplement (11th December 1924):
Colonel Gore was so misguided as to present some poisoned African knives as a wedding present to “Pickles”, a damsel of whom he had long since been enamoured. “Pickles”, before marrying her family practitioner, had been highly indiscreet and had placed herself in the power of a handsome rogue who blackmails her to such a point of exasperation that she tries to wound him with one of the poisoned knives. The experienced reader of this class of fiction will know that it is impossible that “Pickles” should have in any way been implicated when the rogue’s corpse is found a few hours later with a scratch on the cold hand. Gore is naturally very worried and sets out to seek fresh clues, only to get knocked on the head in the process. It is all very exciting and unexpected.