Tag Archives: Basil Thomson

A Murder Is Arranged

A review of A Murder is Arranged by Basil Thomson

The eighth and last in Thomson’s Inspector Richardson series, A Murder is Arranged was originally published in 1937 and now reissued by Dean Street Press. I have found the series variable in quality but at least Thomson rounds off the Richardson saga in some style, albeit in his usual understated fashion. He died in 1939 and there is no sense in the text that this was going to be the last we would see of Richardson. I wonder, had he not died whether he would have written any more.

Richardson, from his elevated position of Chief Constable, once more directs operations, offering advice, tactical direction, but leaving his underlings, principally Inspector Dallas, to do the not inconsiderable leg work. Thomson takes the unusual step of deploying the lengthy progress reports that Dallas files to drive the narrative forward, interspersed with third party narrative of events that fall outwith the police investigation at the time. It may seem an odd approach, and the stilted officialese of the opening of each report can seem a bit stilted, but it seems to work. Thomson was a career policeman, heading up Scotland Yard’s CID section during the First World War, and the reports give some verisimilitude to the grind that is police work.

Some familiar themes can be found in this gripping tale which boasts a plot more intricate than Thomson’s standard fare. It is once more a story featuring Anglo-French police co-operation. Long gone, thankfully, is the little Englander attitude that so marred The Case of the Dead Diplomat, although Thomson cannot resist pointing out the differences between the two forces’ interrogation techniques and French officialdom’s susceptibility to a bribe. Dallas and Richardson, instead, are conscious of the expenses being racked up by Dallas’ sorties to France, but the two forces work well together.     

Once again there is a mix of murder and robbery and a fashion house, themes those who have read Thomson will recognise. In essence, this is a country house murder mystery with a twist. Forge, the owner of Scudamore Hall, has, somewhat bizarrely, invited a motley crew of guests whom he has picked up in various hotels to celebrate Christmas with him. One, Margaret Gask, is found shot dead on Crooked Lane, the driveway to the stately pile, her mink coat has gone missing, and an infamous receiver of stolen property, Fredman, who appears to be associated with Gask, is also found murdered.

It appears that Forge’s guests are not as random as first appeared, each having their own particular reasons to avail themselves of his hospitality. Not everyone, including Forge’s staff are all they appear to be and we soon enter into a world of jewellery thieves, fences, fake monks and Italian prince, a murdered French senator, a Parisian fashion house which keeps losing its stock, false identities, duplicated car registration plates, metal boxes, a monastery used as a safe haven for stolen goods, and much more as investigations take place on both sides of the Channel.

The plot twists and turns until it reaches its inevitable conclusion. The police only have evidence strong enough to convict someone for the murder of Fredman, but that is enough. You can only hang once. Revealingly, there is a moral line in the world of the felon between good, “honest” robbery and dirty murder, a line that gave rise to the book’s alternative title, When Thieves Fall Out, The crossing of that particular Rubicon hastens the resolution of the case.

Thomson tells the story with workmanlike, honest prose which moves the story along, although there is little in the way of variation in pace and tone. It has its moments of humour and is an entertaining insight into police investigations and inter-force cooperation. It provides a good note to end a series that was worth persevering with.

The Milliner’s Hat Mystery

A review of The Milliner’s Hat Mystery by Basil Thomson

So rapidly has Thomson’s Richardson risen up the greasy pole of the police force that not only has he become Chief Constable but he has also almost disappeared from his own series. Richardson’s appearances in this book, the seventh in the series, originally published in 1937 and now reissued by Dean Street Press, are few and far between, restricted to giving a word of advice here, a steer there, and ensuring that the evidence is shipshape, and the expenses incurred are not astronomic. The legwork in the case is done by one of his underlings, Inspector Vincent.

My impression when I had finished this book, also known as The Mystery of the French Milliner, an entertaining enough tale of murder and drug running, was that Thomson was rather like an overly cautious driver seated behind the wheel of a powerful car. There was so much more left under the bonnet. His style is plain, unembellished with any flights of fancy or purple prose or even anything over and above rudimentary description, the story chugging along with enough oomph to get it to its destination, without any discernible change of pace, allowing the reader sufficient time to take in all that they needed to but without any risk that it would lead to any sense of excitement or bewilderment.

It is another case that sees collaboration between the British and French police authorities, although the sense of superiority that marred The Case of the Dead Diplomat is less in evidence. Of course, police officials are susceptible to bribery leading to the escape of two suspects from custody and the dangers of local police forces being under the control of mayors are gleefully pointed out, but Thomson admires the French approach to drug trafficking compared with the more laissez-faire attitude of the British.

Vincent and his opposite number fly backwards and forwards across the channel, take train and car journeys down to Cornwall, racking up expenses as they attempt to solve a crime that began with the discovery of a body of Mr Pitt in a barn by two men, sheltering from a thunderstorm. Investigations uncover the fact that Pitt, a bank clerk, was living a life well beyond the means of a bank official.

Where did his money come from, enough to finance a swanky pad and to enable him to gamble regularly? What was in the padded envelopes he regularly received? Who were the two Americans who had hired the car in which Pitt was killed and why were they in a rush to get a motorboat at Newquay to take them to France? Did they kill Pitt or, as they claimed, were they held up by another who proceeded to assassinate the bank clerk? Why was there an invoice from a French milliner for 100,000 francs? Why did the milliner have to make numerous alterations to the hats she sold to the supposed wives of the American duo?

Eventually the authorities make sense of a puzzling set of clues. The murder, which Vincent is principally concerned with, and the drug running, which exercises the French, are inextricably linked and justice is eventually done. The reader can see all the moving parts and be satisfied that Thomson has been fair and above board in his narrative.

If you like police procedure and a logical, cogent case, this is for you. Just don’t expect to have to fasten your seat belt.

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.

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.      

The Case Of The Dead Diplomat

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.