The Dartmoor Enigma

A review of The Dartmoor Enigma by Basil Thomson

If you like police procedural novels where doing the hard yards and a bit of fortune leads to the unravelling of a case rather than the deductive intuition of an amateur sleuth, then Basil Thomson’s Inspector Richardson series is worth your time and trouble to explore.

What strikes the modern reader about The Dartmoor Enigma, the fifth outing for Richardson, originally published in 1935 and now reissued by Dean Street Press – it also goes by the alternative and clunkier title of Richardson Solves a Dartmoor Mystery – is how leisurely the investigation is. Richardson and his sidekick Jago, who knows the Dartmoor area, travel by train, bus, foot and have to fight for the one police car available. Telegrams and calls from phone boxes, letters and handwritten reports are the forms of communication rather than the e-mails and mobiles you would find in a modern police story. Documents have either to be transcribed or photographed It is a wonder that they achieved anything.

Richardson, the rising star of the Yard, is called in to investigate the death of Charles Dearborn after the local Chief Constable receives an anonymous letter suggesting that the man’s death was not caused by a motor accident, but an assault. It is a difficult case for Richardson as so many of the initial promising clues turn out to be dead ends.

Dearborn seemed to have been a man of mystery, someone who kept himself to himself. He had money, although no one was sure where it came from. There were rumours that it was from a property sale. He moved into the area three years ago, advertised for a housekeeper whom he married a year later. He had recently bought a local quarry. A quarry worker, described as an agitator, was dismissed by Dearborn and was seen at the scene of the accident. However, his alibi stacks up.

In what seems to be his next breakthrough, the writer of the anonymous letter is identified but they, too, have a cast-iron alibi. An American publicist arrives on the scene who represents a young film star going by the name of Jane Smith claims that she is the wife of Dearborn. Did this mean that Dearborn was a bigamist? This turns out to be the clue that Richardson desperately needed to crack the case.

He discovers that the Dearborn that Jane Smith married was not the Dearborn that was killed on Dartmoor. Yes, it is another case of assumed identities, masking a shady past which explains the dead man’s wealth and provides the motivation for his death. Richardson, under pressure from his superiors to either wrap the case up or solve it as they are concerned about the expenses he is clocking up – financial pressures seem to have been as much a bugbear for the police then as they were now – finally makes sense of it all.

In truth, the resolution is a tad anticlimactic and, perhaps, an explanation but not a conviction to go with it would antagonise the bean counters at the Yard even more. Still, justice has to be seen to be done and Richardson’s tireless efforts bring about a result.

Thomson writes in an easy style and what I like about his books is that as a former senior officer at the Yard he has insights about police procedure and the stresses and strains of working on a case that other writers at the time cannot bring so authoritatively to their narrative. He uses his insider’s insights sparingly and lightly, but they give an added layer of authority to the story.

The book is entertaining enough, with enough twists and turns to keep all but the most demanding reader satisfied, and Richardson and Jago are engaging companions. Although far from a classic, Richardson scores again.      

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