“The Ingenious Mr. Walling”, an English journalist and magistrate (1869–1949), wrote nearly 30 detective stories between 1927 and 1949, most featuring Philip Tolefree, a private investigator masquerading as an insurance agent.
Walling, editor of a Plymouth newspaper, was appointed magistrate of the town, became interested in the motives and detection of crime, and wrote detective stories as a hobby. In his quiet but complicated books, high finance and high passion lead to murder, often in picturesque countryside. While Symons considered Walling a Humdrum, S.S. Van Dine may have been an influence. Tolefree solves crimes using psychology (character, motive, and probability) and physiology, rather than inferences from physical clues.
Walling was highly regarded in America. More than 135,000 copies of his mysteries were sold in the US, publisher Morrow boasted. “His rare combination of human characters, exciting yet logical situations, and an accuracy of detail based on first-hand knowledge of criminal procedure has won him a large following among American mystery fans.”
Will Cuppy (New York Herald Tribune) called Walling the dean of mystery writers: “Here is an author who can run rings around most of his rivals, who knows his plot, and never misses a clue.” Howard Haycraft preferred Walling to John Rhode, but thought the later books trailed off in quality. John Dickson Carr hailed Murder at the Keyhole (1929) as a demonstration of how a writer can force the reader to look literally in the wrong direction. Walling was not only clever, his contemporaries thought; he was a good novelist, too. “He writes like a man of the world and his work is for the intelligent, discriminating reader” (The New York Telegram). “Few detective stories leave, when one has laid them down, so many characters distinct in the memory” (Edward Shanks, John O’London’s Weekly).
Ogden Nash, Alexander Woollcott, Amy Loveman (founding editor of the Saturday Review of Literature), and William Lyon Phelps (Yale Professor of English Literature) were enthusiasts. So, apparently, was the Queen of Spain; she left behind a half-finished Walling novel when she fled during the Revolution.
These days, however, there are few Walling fans. Bill Pronzini thought Walling wrote “some of the dullest mysteries ever committed to paper; it may even be said that he elevated dullness to a fine art”. And his sleuth Tolefree was a twit. (Pronzini, though, writes hardboiled stories, a genre I find dull.) Barry Pike, on the other hand, finds Walling’s “courtly” detective stories “replete with mystery, suspense, cross-purposes and strained relations”.
Many of Walling’s mysteries are available as eBooks, giving readers a chance to decide for themselves. I read half a dozen 15 years ago, and enjoyed them. Walling’s detective stories might not live up to the hype, but they are well-crafted, engaging, and lively, although without the technical ingenuity of Street or Crofts at their best. I remember particularly enjoying Mr. Tolefree’s Reluctant Witnesses.
- The Strong Room (1927)
- The Dinner-Party at Bardolph’s (1927)
- Murder at the Keyhole (1929)
- The Man with the Squeaky Voice (1930)
- The Stroke of One (1931)
- The Fatal Five Minutes (1932)
- Behind the Yellow Blind (1932; published in the US as Murder at Midnight)
- Follow the Blue Car (1933; published in the US as In Time for Murder)
- The Tolliver Case (1934; published in the US as Prove It, Mr. Tolefree)
- Eight to Nine (1934; published in the US as The Bachelor Flat Mystery)
- The Five Suspects (1935; published in the US as Legacy of Death)
- The Cat and the Corpse (1935; published in the US as The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas)
- Mr. Tolefree’s Reluctant Witnesses (1936; published in the US as The Corpse in the Coppice)
- The Corpse in the Crimson Slippers (1936)
- The Corpse with the Dirty Face (1936; published in the US as The Crime in Cumberland Court)
- The Mystery of Mr. Mock (1937; published in the US as The Corpse with the Floating Foot)
- Bury Him Deeper (1937; published in the US as Marooned with Murder)
- The Coroner Doubts (1938; published in the US as The Corpse with the Blue Cravat)
- More than One Serpent (1938; published in the US as The Corpse with the Grimy Glove)
- Dust in the Vault (1939; published in the US as The Corpse with the Blistered Hand)
- They Liked Entwhistle (1939; published in the US as The Corpse with the Redheaded Friend)
- Why Did Trethewy Die? (1940; published in the US as The Spider and the Fly)
- By Hook or by Crook (1941)
- Castle-Dinas (1942; published in the US as The Corpse with the Eerie Eye)
- The Doodled Asterisk (1943; published in the US as A Corpse by Any Other Name)
- A Corpse Without a Clue (1945)
- The Late Unlamented (1948)
- The Corpse with the Missing Watch (1949)