The Prime Minister’s Pencil

A review of The Prime Minister’s Pencil by Cecil Waye

He is the type of politician who owes his success to clever boosting than to sound statesmanship. And in my opinion, it will be a bad day for the country when he is allowed a say in the management of its affairs”. That is not a contemporary political observation but Christopher Perrin’s succinct summary of the politician, Sir Ethelred Rushburton, who stands to take a prominent Cabinet position if the current government falls. It seems that those types were always around, some more successful than others.

This is the fourth and last outing for Cecil Waye’s private investigator, Christopher Perrin and was published in 1933 and has now been reissued for a modern readership to discover by Dean Street Press. Waye was a nom de plume of the prolific author Cecil John Stewart Charles Street, who wrote much longer series of detection under the pen names of John Rhode, featuring a forensic scientist by the name of Doctor Priestley, and Miles Burton. My major criticism of Perrin is that is not really developed as a character and is somewhat colourless, giving the impression that Street did not really know what to do with him and gave up to pursue other avenues.  

There are elements of Priestley forensic’s approach in this book with the death of Rushburton’s missing secretary, Cuthbert Solway, ascribed to an exotic parasitic disease and the cause of the Prime Minister’s assassination eventually traced to a pencil packed full of substances that reacted in what was at the time a revolutionary and ground-breaking way. However, the tale is as much a thriller as it is a detective novel with Perrin at the centre of all the scrapes, a story involving a determined gang of well-connected criminal masterminds who see a newly developed substance as their key to wealth and influence.

I’m not sure whether it is down to Perrin’s naivete, stupidity or disregard for the dangers of the situation, but he has an unerring knack of falling for every trick in the book, a characteristic which puts his own life in danger but also leads to the unfortunate and unnecessary murder of one of his informants. It makes for an exciting tale, written in an easy style which carries the reader along. Even if it is fairly obvious what is going on, the thriller elements make it a page turner.

The story starts with Millicent Rushburton visiting Perrin’s office to ask for his help in solving the mystery of the disappearance of Solway. She is not so much concerned about the welfare of her father’s secretary as for the disappearance of her leverage to get much needed funds from her father’s wallet. Solway disappeared after visiting a Harley Street specialist but is eventually found on Rushburton’s estate, Oldwick Manor. The local doctor cannot find a cause of death but the post-mortem shows he died from trypanosomosis. As Solway had rarely left Oldwick Manor, never mind the country, the cause of his death and his unexplained absence is baffling.

The Prime Minister is assassinated, after sharpening a pencil given to him by a financier. The PM is killed instantaneously, and his secretary is stunned. The pencil vanishes into thin air. Perrin sees a connection between the assassination and Solway’s disappearance and death. Doggedly, with the assistance of his pal, Inspector Philpott, and his business partner, Meade, rumbles the conspiracy involving some of the highest in the land and a plot that could have changed the shape of the country’s fortunes.

Perrin certainly signs off with a bang.

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