A Case For Solomon

A review of A Case for Solomon by Bruce Graeme

When Bruce Graeme’s A Case for Solomon, originally published in 1943 and now reissued by the enterprising Moonstone Press, came to the top of my TBR pile, such was the disappointment that I had felt over his previous novel, House With Crooked Walls, I was tempted to put it to one side. However, Armchairreviewer, who had reacted to my review of despair, encouraged me to continue with Graeme, promising me that his third in his Theodore Terhune series was the best. So with a deep intake of breath, similar to one I take when I pick up a Gladys Mitchell or jump into an icy tarn, I plunged into it.  

She was not wrong. It came from left field, twisted the inverted crime mystery genre until its pips squeaked, and provided an ingenious plot with a clever and, ultimately, satisfying resolution. One of (the many) strong arguments against capital punishment is that once the murderer has committed one, and therefore likely to dance the hemp jig, there is little or no disincentive to strike again. At least in detective fiction of the so-called Golden Age, once the culprit has crossed the Rubicon of murder, they seem to go on a spree.

Graeme takes this theme and turns it on its head. The central conceit is can someone, in this case Charles Cockburn, murder the same individual, the odious Frank Smallwood, some 19 years apart and, having stood trial and found guilty for the first, although not hung, can he be tried for the same crime again? It is an intriguing dilemma and calls for the judgment of Solomon.

The book falls into four parts. The opening section is a traditional detective story. Bookseller and amateur sleuth, Terhune, with a penchant for discovering (and solving) murders, is out for a walk in the woods with one of his girlfriends, Helena, when he finds a discarded copy of Swinburne’s Rosamond. Nearby, hidden under leaves, they find the body of a man who has obviously been murdered and has a curious jagged scar on a leg. It turns out (naturally) that Terhune had sold the book and that the owner (obviously) had put their initials on the title page.

The police, aided by Terhune, track down who had the book in their possession at the time olf the murder and identify the murdered man as Frank Smallwood. The only problem is that Smallwood had been murdered in 1927, part of the evidence being the severed leg bearing Smallwood’s distinctive scar. The second part of the book is occupied by a transcript of the first trial. It is more engaging than this bald description suggests and provides some valuable insights into the relationship between Cockburn and Smallwood.

Armed with this knowledge Terhune endeavours to solve the more recent murder, which takes up the third part of the book with the subsequent trial making up the fourth. A moot point is whether Cockburn can stand trial again on the same charge, the judge controversially ruling that the murders happened in different counties and, therefore, the charges were not identical. What happened on that fatal night when Cockburn unexpectedly encountered Smallwood in the woods becomes clear, as do the events that led to the supposed first murder.

Smallwood’s callous act of revenge met its just desserts, the justice meted out at the end is rough but neatly resolved and Patricia Webb, who failed to stand by her man the first time, finally does the right thing.

There is one curiosity about the book. It was published in 1943 but the action was set in 1946. The war is (clearly) over and England (clearly) was not under German occupation. Did Graeme have any special knowledge or was the general feeling at the time that the war would soon be over and that the Germans would be defeated? Another fascinating point in a book full of intrigue that is a joy to read.

I am glad I took Armchairreviewer’s advice and persevered with an author who clearly had recovered his mojo. Great stuff.

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