3/28/19

Murder Isn't Cricket (1946) by E. and M.A. Radford

Edwin and Mona A. Radford were a British husband-and-wife writing team who compiled several encyclopedic works, such as the Encyclopedia of Superstitions (1949), but they wrote mostly "well-conceived and cleverly plotted murder mysteries," thirty-eight in total, which were published between 1944 and 1972 – thirty-five featured their series-character, Dr. Harry Manson. A scientific detective along the lines of the many detectives created by John Russell Fearn and Arthur Porges.

There is, however, an important difference in that Dr. Manson is not only the head of the Forensic Research Laboratory, but also a high-ranking Scotland Yard detective who attained the rank of Commander. So here we have a genuine rarity of a character fulfilling the dual role of police detective and a scientific consultant.

Edwin Radford was a voracious reader of the Dr. John Thorndyke mysteries by R. Austin Freeman, whose forensic detective stories left their prints all over this series, but even more remarkable is the undeniable influence of Ellery Queen, because the Radfords made liberal use of the "Challenge to the Reader" to alert the reader to the presence of clues – scattering these challenges across numerous chapters throughout a story. Apparently, the Radfords were not above bragging that the fair play principle is the foundation of their detective novels by providing their readers with "the facts and clues to give them a fair opportunity" in "solving the riddle."

Sadly, the Radfords have been out-of-print for decades and practically forgotten today, but, once again, Dean Street Press is here to save two more mystery writers from biblioblivion.

Earlier this month, DSP reissued three titles, Jigsaw Murder (1944), Murder Isn't Cricket (1946) and Who Killed Dick Whittington? (1947), which were selected for their "strong plots, clever detection and evocative settings." This time with an introduction from another genre historian, Nigel Moss. Now here's where the story gets interesting.

Edwin and Mona A. Radford occasionally dipped their pen in the (invisible) inkwell of the impossible crime genre and they produced four titles, three novels and a short story collection, but only three were listed by Robert Adey in Locked Room Murders (1991) – two have now been reprinted by DSP. Firstly, there's the short stories, collected in Death and the Professor (1961), which stars their one-time sleuth, Prof. Marcus Stubbs, who solves some of their more conventional impossible crimes. Such as shootings and strangling deaths in locked or guarded rooms. Who Killed Dick Whittington? and Death of a Frightened Editor (1959) deals with seemingly impossible poisonings.

Finally, there's the overlooked Murder Isn't Cricket and probably flew under the radar, because the murder is not really treated/viewed as an impossibility. More like an improbable crime. Nonetheless, it certainly qualifies as an impossible crime novel. Or, in this case, an open air locked room mystery. 
 
Murder Isn't Cricket is set in the village of Thames Pagnall, in the county of Surrey, which has been embroiled in a century-old rivalry with the cricket team of the neighboring village of Maplecot. On a Saturday afternoon, their a tie-breaking match between the two villages, which ended in a draw, but the damper came when a man is found slumped in a deck chair. A bullet wound is later found in his back. The victim was a complete stranger and the man has no identification on him, but a diary shows he had been touring the British countryside on a round of sightseeing and had come to Thames Pagnall with the same reason. So why kill a complete stranger in full view of a thousand people? And why did saw the murder happen or spotted the shooter?

The county police are out of their depth and Doctor Harry Manson, of Scotland Yard, is placed in charge of the case and they begin a meticulously, step-by-step, reconstruction of the murder by using logic and old-school CSI work – such as the use of mini-vacuum cleaner to such "the dust thickly engrained in the cloth" of the victim's clothes. This helped them to identify the victim and opened another avenue in their investigation closely linked to the criminal underworld. Every couple of chapters, the reader is asked either to answer certain questions or whether they spotted all the clues given in that chapter.

So the unraveling of the story is like walking down a dark pathway with a flashlight, illuminating more of the path with every step, until you reach the end. An ending you can anticipate, if you picked up all the breadcrumbs that were dropped along the way. Something that should appeal to fans of early Ellery Queen (e.g. The French Powder Mystery, 1930).

All of that said, the story would have really benefited from a clear, well-drawn map of the crime scene and Doctor Manson made an amateur mistake when he referenced Edgar Allan Poe's pioneering 1841 short story, "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," but described the plot of another iconic tale by one of the giants of the detective story. Very sloppy.

However, those are minor flaws and the only thing that really bothered me was Doctor Manson's illogical statement that something, like heads in a coin toss, can "turn up twenty million times in succession" and "still leave the law of averages undisturbed," because some time within "the next twenty million years," or so, tails can turn up an equal number of times. I could be completely wrong here, but, when someone keeps getting head when tossing a coin or keeps throwing sixes with dice, the law of averages dictates that the person is probably playing with a double-headed coin or loaded dice – which is the only thing that annoyed me a bit. Otherwise, this was quite an enjoyable detective story with barely an ounce of fat (i.e. padding) on the plot.

Murder Isn't Cricket is, what Anthony Boucher called, the simon-pure jigsaw-puzzle detective novel that eagerly played the Grandest Game in the World. A spirited game that not only included numerous challenges and sign-posts to where the clues can be found, but the Radfords even included a clue-finder going over all of the clues. I wanted to kick myself for having missed that obvious slip-of-the-tongue. Oh, well, better luck next time.
 
I'm tempted to make Who Killed Dick Whittington? my next read, but I'll probably take a look at another little-known mystery writer who was recently brought back into print. So stay tuned!

4 comments:

  1. I saw Puzzle Doctor's review of this and thought "Hmmm, that sounds like my kind of thing" -- and, despite your parallels with the early works of Ellery Queen, you convince me even more. Expect this to appear over at my place in...maybe four or five years.

    As to the "twenty million heads" thing...what's said in the book is perfectly logical. Every time you flip a coin, it could come down Heads, but typically such a run is interrupted by a Tails at some point simply because that is as likely. It's vanishingly rare that you get Heads, say, ten times in a row, but again absolutely possible. Twenty million is several orders of magnitude less likely, veering so damn close to impossible as to be almost indistinct, but the fact remains that there's even a miniscule chance it might happen and so mathematically that's absolutely fine by us!

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    1. Purely theoretical and bad logic in a detective story. Once is happenstance. Twice is a coincidence. Three is a pattern. When someone keeps getting heads or tails when flipping a coin, they're cheating.

      Anyway, I hope you'll get a lot sooner to this one, because I actually have no idea whether you would like it or not. You can go either way on this one. Like a coin toss. ;)

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    2. Oh, sure, but mathematically thatr's where a lot of statistical distributions come from: the fact that even though something is overwhelmingly unlikely it's still possible. But, sure, I appreciate that in a novel of detection we typically want to believe the chances of something coming off are better than 1 in several several several billion. Though I seem to recall your being a fan of Thy Arm Alone by John Russell Fearn, and the central conceit of that book is even less likely than that... :D

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    3. You haven't done your homework, JJ. The solution from Thy Arm Alone can be hard to swallow, especially when it was written, but that unlikely situation actually happened seven years later in 1954. Only difference in this real-life case is that the victim lived to tell the story. Look it up.

      So Thy Arm Alone is infinitely more likely to happen than heads turning up twenty million times in a row.

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