Who Killed Stella Pomeroy?

A review of Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? by Basil Thomson

Richardson’s rise up the greasy pole has been spectacular. When we first met him in Richardson’s First Case, he was a lowly beat bobby, but in this the sixth in the series, he is now not only a Superintendent in the CID but also the go-to man to solve a tricky murder. The demise of Stella Pomeroy is what exercises his mind in this novel, originally published in 1936 and now reissued by Dean Street Press. It also goes by the alternative title of Death in the Bathroom.

Thomson approaches the detective novel from a procedural perspective, a hangover from his time as head of the Metropolitan Police during the First World War, but he uses his insider’s knowledge with a light touch, just enough detail to make it seem realistic, not too much to make the narrative indigestible. His style is uncluttered and workmanlike, although he does indulge himself in a floral passage or two and has the knack of encapsulating a scene or a place in a couple of well-chosen sentences, the legacy, perhaps, of having to write so many internal reports.

Rather like the author, Richardson is content to get on with the job. He is nothing if not thorough, anxious to explore every angle with the same level of industry whether it seems likely to be fruitful or not. However, in this story the golden boy of the Yard does make a significant mistake by not appreciating the value of a particular clue. I will not hammer him for it, but had he done so, the book would have been considerably shorter than it is.

That would have been a shame, though, as we would have been deprived of the opportunity of meeting some picaresque characters who have made their way to England from New Zealand. Edward Maddox arrives on the morning that Stella Pomeroy is found murdered with news of her uncle’s death. He is over to prove the uncle’s will and has hooked up with a shady character he met on the voyage over who seems to have an unhealthy interest in the legacy and sees Maddox as a cash cow. Much of the middle section of the book is taken with investigating what this couple together with Stella’s weak brother are up to – Richardson is joined by Jim Milsom, an amateur sleuth, whom we have met before – and while they are up to no good and have their collars felt, as far as the murder is concerned, they are an enormous red herring.

The case seems relatively straightforward at the outset. Stella Pomeroy’s body is found in the bathroom just at the time that there is to be a viewing of the house. As, inevitably, the doors and windows are all locked, it looks to have been an inside job, making Stella’s husband the number one suspect in the local police’s book. He is arrested, but his cousin, Ann, is far from convinced. As Richardson takes over investigations from the rather dim Inspector Aitken, more and more of Stella’s murky past is revealed including blackmail, fuelled by her kleptomania.

Richardson finally puts all the pieces of an increasingly complex plot together and identifies the culprit. Gratifyingly, too, he makes another catch right at the end.

Thomson will never win any awards for the complexity of his plots or the quality of his writing, but he does have the happy knack of being able to produce an interesting, readable, and thoroughly enjoyable story, ideal for a winter’s evening. I was a little doubtful about this series when I started it, but I am warming up to Thomson and Richardson. It is a shame there are only two more to go.

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