A review of Richardson’s Last Case by Basil Thomson
I am enjoying discovering different writers from the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction and different approaches. If anyone should know everything there is to know about police procedures in the 1920s and 30s, then a former Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard. After his retirement from the force, Thomson, by then benighted, wrote seven crime novels in a period of six years, featuring his detective creation, Richardson. He is a jejune bobby when we first encounter him in this book but by the end he has become a fully-fledged member of the CID, destined for greatness because of his dedication and ability to spot clues and follow vital leads, all in the space of 200 pages.
Police procedural stories can be a tad wearisome, more concerned with impressing their audience with their in-depth knowledge of, or at least their perception of, how police departments operate. Think Line of Duty. There are acronyms peppered in the text but with Richardson finding his way in the police force, he asks for explanation of the more obscure ones. Unlike their modern incarnations, police interviews actually generate some real information rather than just being a tedious series of “No comment” answers.
What is clear from this book, originally published in 1933 and reissued for a modern readership by Dean Street Press, is that Thomson is an impressive, no-nonsense storyteller. The book moves along at a fair pace, no words are wasted, the characters are believable and delineated sufficiently for the book’s purposes, and the plot is well-worked, although the identity of the culprit is a tad bit obvious. The principal problem for the police is proof robust enough to satisfy the high standards demanded by the DPP (Department of Public Prosecutions) and this is where Richardson comes up trumps.
The complexity of the case revolves around the precise timing of two deaths, that of John Catchpool who is knocked down by a vehicle in front of Richardson who is on traffic duty, and of his estranged wife who is found murdered the following day in Catchpool’s shop but who had clearly met her maker the day before. If Mrs Catchpool died after her husband, she would have inherited his estate and that would then pass to her nephew, Lieutenant Sharp, who was in London at the time of the deaths but has to be recalled from his ship in Gibraltar to assist with enquiries. If Mrs Catchpool predeceased her husband, the estate would pass to Herbert Reece, John’s nephew, who seems rather too eager to get his hands on the money.
Would establishing the precise chronology of events help to unmask Mrs Catchpool’s murderer? Both nephews have motive enough. And then there is Arthur Harris, who owed Catchpool a considerable sum of money – £20 equates to around £1,400 at today’s value – and denied recognising the moneylender when Richardson took him to the mortuary. And then there is the drunken artist, Cronin, who was in Catchpool’s shop at the time that Mrs Catchpool was killed and was anxious to retrieve a valuable painting he had pawned and, later, seems to have come into funds.
A single key, brown paper, an umbrella, and a false beard all play their part in revealing whodunit.
The book shows how the police went about discovering the identity of an unknown victim (Catchpool) and how one discovery can lead to another, creating a complex puzzle which only patient and methodical groundwork can resolve. Thomson’s gift is to raise what could have been a rather tedious tale of detectives following up on leads and testing alibis into an enthralling and enjoyable tale.
I shall be meeting up with Richardson again, I’m sure.