In the Shadow of the Gallows

"Behind every great fortune lies a great crime."
- Honoré de Balzac

Maurice B. Dix was an author of detective and thriller fiction who contributed to the Sexton Blake Library, publishing most of his stories before World War II, but the passage of time, unkind as ever, obliterated nearly every trace of the man – even the Golden Age of Detection Wiki came up blank when I searched for his name.

I couldn't tell if Murder at Grassmere Abbey (1934) is a standalone crime novel or a volume from a series of mysteries, starring the intuitive inspector Gordon Frewin and the man-of-facts Chief Inspector Jimmy Miller, but the plot is a smorgasbord of tropes, clichés and dust particles of good ideas.

When the story opens, two separate cases are staring Gordon and Miller in the face. The first consists of a gang of dope peddlers, using a fishing fleet to smuggle cocaine into the country, and one of the men, "Steamboat Bill," a skipper of a fish tender, Saucy Nan, threw a man overboard after finding him in bed with his wife. The man died and Bill is facing a charge of manslaughter, however, Gordon is convinced that it was carefully planted murder by the mastermind behind the drug ring, but with the man on trial, he's summoned to look into another case.

At Grassmere Abbey, Sir James Arnold was shot in his own library by an intruder and his neighbor, John Forsythe, was arrested as the responsible party. The murder weapon, which Forsythe admits throwing into the pond near the estate at the night of the murder, belongs to him. He was also overheard having a violent quarrel with Sir James. The local constabulary lacks any doubting shadows nipping at their heels about Forsythe's guilt, but the prisoner has powerful and popular friends who want a second opinion from Scotland Yard's finest. It's interesting to note how police-friendly this book is. Aside from the local police, they are portrayed as intelligent, well-trained, witty and caring people who go out of their way to protect the innocent – even treading carefully to not startle the highly strung skeletons in the overstuffed closets of the local gentry any further.

Gordon and Miller were also the only "real" characters in the book, but only because you could follow their trend of thoughts. You get to know them more as policeman than as actual people. And no. I don't count that love affair of Gordon as characterization. Oh, but there was one brief moment when they were speculating on Miller's hatred for drugs, before it was shrugged off, which felt as a willful act of non-characterization!

Obviously, a clue turns up (i.e. a cylinder of cocaine) that ties together the two cases just in time for the murderer to strike down a second victim: P.C. Brown was standing guard on the scene of the crime when a bullet struck him in the face, but the police seals on the doors and windows were intact. But don't expect too much from the solution, which is almost insulting and belongs on the pages of one the detective genres primordial ancestors from the 1800s. The same can be said for most of the answers given in this story. Very disappointing.

Yes, I did dream up an explanation of my own to account for the unbroken police seals on the doors and windows of the library, which is not only better, but would've also smoothed out some imperfections (no spoilers for the actual solution):  

The only way to have made the murder of P.C. Brown work as a proper locked room mystery, is if he had been killed by one of the "unknown" gang members, which is a role I would've assigned to the local constable, Maples. He would've had access to the house and was in a position to remove the seals, retrieve any evidence and reseal the room with an official police seal. Unfortunately, he didn't counted on P.C. Brown and a struggle ensued, in which he fatally struck his head on the fireplace. To delay the discovery, he still applies a fresh police seal to the door. This would've also accounted for why he was satisfied with the circumstantial case against Forsythe and having Maples as co-killer would fit the pattern of the story to a T.

But in the end, Murder at Grassmere Abbey was just a bad, but readable, book that began to teeter on the brink of idiocy once the pile-up of tropes and clichés, dragged kicking and screaming from retirement, became apparent. Dix basically took every preconceived notion that non-mystery fans have of classic whodunits and shoehorned them in a book of just a little more than three hundred pages. Recommended as a curiosity only.


  1. So sorry that it turned out to be a disappointment. There's nothing like discovering a little lost gem hidden in the mist of time. (Sorry for the bathos but I need my cup of tea).

    1. Don't feel too sorry for me. Being disappointed is an occupational hazard, if you decide to become an armchair reviewer of obscure and long-forgotten detective stories. ;)

  2. Hubin's bibliography says Dix's series characters are Supt. Simon Bullion (2 books identified), Tommy Malins, Anthony Mornington & George Hawkins (4), and Insp. James Miller (2). Looks like you read #2 in Miller's adventures. But there may be more for all those characters as my edition is only the 2nd revision and there have been countless revisions since 1990. Someone may have discovered more Miller books (or more of the others) and added them on.

    Years ago I read THE GOLDEN FLUID by Dix with Mornington, Malins & Hawkins. It read like Dornford Yates meets Sax Rohmer. There was an occultish aspect to it but it was primarily a pursuit thriller with a lot of posh 30s male humor and smart aleck dialogue you find in British thrillers of that era. Nothing memorable at all, mostly derivative.