Book Corner – September 2020 (1)

The Lost Mr Linthwaite – J S Fletcher

To my embarrassment, I’m not sure I had even heard of Joseph Smith Fletcher, never mind read any of his stuff, before I picked up this book. It would not be an understatement to say that this once relatively popular and, certainly, prolific author has now somewhat faded into obscurity. Thanks to the efforts of the Black Heath Classic Crime series, you can now find some of his detective fiction in e-book form. This is one of them.

Fletcher (1863 – 1935) was a prolific writer, publishing in a range of styles including poetry, historical and detective fiction. His first published novel was When Charles The First Was King, which saw the light of day in 1892 and which many consider to be his finest work. If his writing career went downhill it was a long slope as he published some 230 books in total. His first crime collection was a series of short stories which came out in 1909 under the rather racy (and dated) title of The Adventures of Archer Dawe, Sleuth-hound.

The Mr Linthwaite book appeared in 1920, right at the start of Fletcher’s most productive period, publishing over 50 books over the next ten years. Fletcher’s main interest was crimes involving fraud, his interest piqued by a case which was heard in the Quarter Sessions of the town in which he went to school. “Its circumstances were unusual”, he wrote, “and mysterious and the truth hard to get at”. It would be no surprise then to learn that this book is about fraud and deception.

Conan Doyle is reputed to have written his Sherlock Holmes stories because he thought he could do better than Fletcher, although the chronology seems to me to make that unlikely,  and whilst this story may come a long way short of the best of Holmes, it is still a good honest adventure story with enough twists and turns to keep the reader interested and the denouement was satisfying without too many ludicrous plot turns or coincidences to bring the action to a conclusion.

You can’t help noticing that it is a tad old-fashioned and rather more gently paced than some Golden Age fiction I have read. There are still horse-drawn omnibuses, a well-connected railway system which, provided you have the time, allows you to get pretty much anywhere from anywhere and communications are sent by a reliable, efficient and speedy postal system. There are telegrams, but these are reserved for real emergencies, and the mention of a telephone towards the end of the book comes as a real shock. This is a very different time.

The detective work is done by an enthusiastic amateur, Linthwaite’s nephew, and the text hints that he has had prior experience on matters of this nature. The police, on the other hand, are depicted as blundering assess, Inspector Crabbe all too quick to jump to the conclusion that a group of gypsy travellers must have been the culprits. Their brawn is needed at the end but, to all intents and purposes, they play a marginal role in proceedings.

Mr Linthwaite has gone to visit the ancient town of Selchester for a few days, he is a keen antiquarian, and his nephew is to join him after a few days. But Mr Linthwaite, a very particular man who would always advise of any change in plans, is missing. What has happened to him? It is revealed that he encountered a respectable woman in the town by chance, someone he knew from his past life as a solicitor. The case turns on an inheritance and which of the woman’s two marriages was legitimate. I won’t spoil it for you.

I enjoyed the book as a piece of undemanding entertainment and will probably read another of Fletcher’s many books.

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