A review of The Case of the Dead Diplomat by Basil Thomson
My overwhelming impression after I had finished this book, the fourth in Basil Thomson’s Inspector Richardson eight book series, published in 1935 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, was of being underwhelmed. It was neither bad nor good, just rather ploddingly average.
It has a rather strange central premise, Richardson, an established and trusted Inspector in the CID, and his colleague, Sergeant Cooper, are sent over to Paris, at the behest of the British Ambassador, to assist the French police investigate the murder of one of the Embassy’s staff. The diplomat has been stabbed in his flat with a dagger which bore the insignia and a motto associated with the Nazis. Given the era in which the book was written, there is a suspicion that there may have been some political motive behind the killing. The Ambassador is keen to avoid a political scandal.
It struck me as I gave the book some thought that at one level the story read like an essay that used to be set when I was a schoolboy studying for my O Levels; compare and contrast the methods of the English and French police forces. It is hard not to think that Thomson, a high-ranking police officer in his day, created this plot simply to demonstrate the superiority of the English police and their methods. Richardson and Cooper are stolid, conscientious, diligent, exasperated by the French police’s attempts to thwart their investigations whereas the French are more concerned about personal ambition, follow where their intuition rather than hard evidence leads them and are susceptible to bribes.
Richardson and Cooper are lucky as well. Getting nowhere fast in solving the diplomat’s death, they spot a couple of people who were wanted in London for fraudulent activities. To lure these criminals in, they have to indulge in a spot of subterfuge, principally involving Cooper posing as a spendthrift millionaire French Canadian. Astonishingly, the criminals take the bait and that element of the story is resolved.
Tangentially, this element of the plot has a tie up with the murder of the diplomat. The scammers were on the hunt for anyone who had recently come into a pot of money through winning the lottery. Who knew that at the time British citizens were precluded from playing the lottery? When they did and won, they had to use a third party to collect the winnings and where there is cash there is temptation. The motivation for the diplomat’s murder was nothing to do with high politics but sheer greed.
The plot has beaucoup de poisons rouges, not least the roll of film found at the murder scene containing photographs taken at the zoo, the investigation of which leaves the bumptious principal French detective with oeuf on his face. In spite of the best efforts of the French other than their friend in court, Charles Verneuil, the only French detective showing any of the professional aptitudes of the British duo, Richardson and Cooper solve the case, a diplomatic incident is avoided and all can carry on as before.
I found the little Englander style too trying to enjoy. I am hoping that the next in the series is better.