Death of a Village Troll

"Do you know, Watson... that it is one of the curses of a mind with a turn like mine that I must look at everything with reference to my own special subject. You look at these scattered houses, and you are impressed by their beauty. I look at them, and the only thought which comes to me is a feeling of their isolation and of the impunity with which crime may be committed there."
- Sherlock Holmes ("The Adventure of the Copper Beeches")
The Voice of the Corpse (1948) launched Australian-born Max Murray's career as a mystery novelist and published twelve detectives altogether, uniformly titled, but lacking a series characters – accounting for his neglect in this day and age. A familiar name running through your books has proven itself to be one of the requisites to give your name some shimmer of immortality. 

After having previously read The Neat Little Corpse (1951) and The Sunshine Corpse (1954), I had pegged Murray as a transitional fossil between the traditional whodunit and the modern-day crime novel – grouping him with Juanita Sheridan as a storyteller of crime in the guise of a detective story. Not a very apt description for The Voice of the Corpse, which stands as a very decent and well-done village mystery.

Angela Mason Pewsey is a spinster in her late forties, who managed the fill the emotional void in her life by scattering the village of Inching Round with poison-pen letters and feeds off the fear they generate. However, it's not the taunting or threatening tone that's causing sleepless nights in Inching Round, but that their content is grounded in truth. Someone in the village has been digging around for dirt, and now, that same person has uncovered their secrets – and using it to torture them. Of course, casting furtive smiles at your victims or brazenly informing them face-to-face, is not an advisable course of action when you write poison-pen letters as a past time. So it's not a surprise when someone actually took a whack at her with the proverbial blunt instrument.

Death came when Pewsey was seated behind her spinning wheel, converting a heap of chow dog hair into a pullover, while singing a folk song, which prevented her from hearing the intruder sneaking up from behind. Her black notebook is missing! Constable Wilks and Sergeant Porter are convinced that a passing tramp or gypsy killed Angela Pewsey and that's the angle they're focusing on. This (tiny) aspect of the plot is a bit class-conscience.

Anyway, Mrs. Sim, a local lady, does not share the opinion of the police and asks her family attorney, Firth Prentice, to investigate and he becomes a reluctant amateur detective. There are two well-drawn small boys, Jackie Day and Alfie Spiers, who practically force their valuable assistance on Prentice – even presenting him with a scrap from Pewsey's elusive diary. They've also witnessed several events preceding the murder, but Prentice remains unproductive and sedentary. Not what Jackie and Alfie expected from a real-life detective. In Prentice's defense, nobody seems particularly interested in the identity of the murderer anyway. Prentice wonders at one point how many murders you have to commit in Inching Round before you become unpopular. The story is laced with these humorous observations and bantering comments, usually between Prentice and Celia, Mrs. Sim's daughter, which made a well-written story even more fun to read.

Here’s as good as any place in the review to mention that I was strongly reminded of some of Gladys Mitchell's more conservative village mysteries, like The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop (1929) and Dead Men's Morris (1936), and the only elements that were missing was a pig farmer and a local legend. And maybe a drowning. Everything else was present. Even faint ties to folk song and dancing. Back to the review.

The investigation enters its final stage when Inspector Tom Fowler from Scotland Yard arrives and he's able to pry loose more information and penetrate deeper, even if the villages themselves aren't aware that they helped the inspector. Fowler eventually makes his moves and secures a conviction, but the ending has an excellent twist packed away and was so much more than I expected from Murray. However, the solution works as a double-edged sword, because, morally, it's a highly ambiguous resolution. But, then again, whoever said that all village-themed mysteries were cozies?

The Voice of the Corpse is one of many, many detective stories and novels weaving a pattern around villages and poison-pen letters, but I think Murray's first foray in the genre produced an above average example that stands out due to it unusual ending. The only feeling of disappointment I have now is realizing how much distance Murray had placed between himself and the traditional detective story after this debut novel. I would love to have read more mysteries from Murray written in this vein.

On a final note, one of my favorite poison-pen stories is "The Possibility of Evil" by Shirley Jackson, collected in Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Detective stories (1996), in which poetic justice strikes down a writer of poison-pen letters.  


  1. Thanks for the heads up. It was easy and cheap for me to get this one from Amazon.com. One thing I have noticed is what an interesting period in mystery fiction the period just after World War II is. I refer to it in my mind as the Returns period (1945-1947), since some of the best work seems to involve stories of the warriors returning from World War II and the new and violent world they are facing. Like many of the Greek heroes who returned from the Trojan War, they came home to tragedy. I attribute this transition period to the exhaustion of the golden age method and the effects of the violence of World War II. I think it became increasingly obvious that reason was only a weak tool against man's innate propensity for violence. No one could really expect for the Great Detective to solve crimes when society had shown that it was fully prepared to throw reason aside and engage in wholesale slaughter. So in this period we begin to see the discarding of golden age style detectives as the mainstream style and another period of multiple forms. So, for instance, we see Dorothy Hughes begin with Insp. Tobin in 1940 but he makes his last appearance in 1942. Charlotte Armstrong begins with Macdougal Duff in 1942 but by 1945 he is also gone. Although a few golden age practitioners, such as John Rhode, continue after the war in their accustomed vein, by 1945 most of them are gone or have published most of their best work. So this is another period of experimentation. This is a very interesting period for study. While the Returns period is concentrated in 1945 to 1947, it continues as a type at least until 1954.

    It leads to the Hardboiled Period (1947-1960). I see the full ending of golden age techniques as the mainstream with the publication of Spillane's I, the Jury in 1947. If we think of the transition in mystery story styles in Hegelian terms, Mike Hammer is the antithesis to Ellery Queen or even to Philip Marlowe. Hammer's detective method is to either kill suspects or watch them get killed until there is no one left but the murderer. While the amount of blood spilled is hard on people's carpets, it saves having to do that hard stuff called thinking. Spillane wrote comic books before he wrote Hammer and it shows. During this period we see the rise of the private eye to dominant form, and also a lot of Gold Key-style crime stories. All this material is evidence of great disruption to the mass mind. A lot of this material is good, vigorous work. Spillane is a much better writer than some people give him credit for.

    To return then to The Voice of the Corpse, it seems to me to be an interesting example of a novel of the Returns period and I will read it as soon as I get it.

  2. Interesting idea, the Return Period, but doesn’t that qualify more as a short-lived sub-movement rather than an entire period, if you look at the genre as a whole?

    I agree that new avenues were opened during the 1940s and the genre indulged in a wide diversity of styles, but the Golden Age-style of detectives were still in full-swing. You could argue that it was the best decade for detective/crime stories, because there was diversity, established writers peaking/maturing (and there were more than just a few of them) and new names were still being welcomed. Christianna Brand, Edmund Crispin and Kelley Roos all debuted in the 40s. In my time-line, the new style co-existed with the old style during its emergence in 40s, but began to dominate and taking over in the 1950s – which I see as a transitional period. 1960 and beyond is post-GAD territory.

    Anway, I hope you enjoy the book as much as I have.

  3. The question in my mind was when did the golden age style of detective fiction cease to be the predominant style. It appears to me that there have always been practitioners of the golden age style from 1919 right up to the present (especially nowadays in Japan), but that after about 1947 golden age style ceased to be the predominant style. After 1947, it seems to me that the hardboiled style became the mainstream. The hardboiled style initially developed in the pulp magazines and only emerged into hardcover prominence to the extent of becoming the mainstream with the publication of I, the Jury. Daly, Hammett and Chandler all developed their styles in the pulp magazines. In fact, I think that all of Hammett's novels except for The Thin Man were initially published in Black Mask. Only a minority of pulp detective fiction got into hard covers until Spillane. However, golden age style fiction may have had magazine publication (most often, I think, in the slick magazines) but its distinguishing feature was that it regularly appeared in hard covers.

    However, this transition did not happen overnight, and there was a transitional period as golden age style faded and pulp hardboiled style became predominant. It appears to me that the transitional period from about 1944 to 1947 has a style and flavor of its own. There seem to be elements of fear, bewilderment and disillusionment mixed in, as though everyone is waking up from a bad dream. I think this particular style is well worthy of study.

    When hardboiled became predominant, these elements are also present, but with an admixture of pulp style violence. Mike Hammer kills and beats up a lot of people, but he does not hold a candle to characters like Norvell Page's Spider, who would kill people by the hundreds. The hardboiled pulp style took the brakes off the violence in a way not often seen in golden age style. When you had millions of corpses lying around in the wake of the war, the characters also became more violent. Hammer was in fact a Returns type character since he had been a WW II vet home from the war, but his response to his situation was not bewilderment but rather a propensity to exercise the violent tendencies he had developed in the war. He has moved from the transition into a distinctive different style.

    So my interest is how transitions occurred between predominant modes of style in the mystery field.

    1. I think the transitional period can be explained simply by pointing to the publishing industry, focusing increasingly more on crime fiction that diverged from the who-and howdunit format at the time and writers, who wanted to get published, responded to that. Joseph Commings tried to take the leap from short stories to novels and wrote four manuscripts, which are now lost because there wasn’t an interested publisher who saw bread in them.

      There are other examples of established, but small-name writers getting turned down. So imagine how many new Christie’s, Carr’s and Queen’s were shown the door, because their manuscripts conformed to the old style. Helen McCoy spoofed this attitude in Two-Thirds of a Ghost, when one publishing character asks another why he turned down a story. It was well-written, but it had a plot. The response from the person who asked the question was heavy eye-rolling.

      During the 1970-and 80s, a period I dubbed the Silver Age, saw a comeback of the classical style, often in the guise of a contemporary crime novel, from writers who grew up reading GAD writers, e.g. Pronzini, DeAndrea and Resnicow. And the icon of this silver period, Columbo!

  4. I would note further that what I think of as the Returns transition has a distinct element of noir in it. The big man for noir prior to WW II was probably Cornell Woolrich, who cut his teeth in the pulps and then made a transition to mystery hardcover. But it seems to me that prior to the war noir was only a tributary. It was only after the war that noir became mainstream.

    For instance, golden age private investigators would do their share of drinking, but I can't recall any of them being described as alcoholics until Wade Miller's Max Thursday came along in Guilty Bystander in 1947.

    So taking popular culture as a whole in this period what we are seeing after the war is that themes developed in the pulps are making the transition to mainstream culture. So for a full understanding of the golden age mode, we need to understand not just how it flourished but also how it declined.

    1. On the subject of clearly named alcoholic detectives before 1947, Anthony Boucher's Nick Noble is an alcoholic ex-cop who practically lives in a bar and appeared for the first time in the 1942 short story, "The Screwball Division." And there's John Gaunt from John Dickson Carr's 1933 novel The Bowstring Murders. I'm sure there are more.

    2. I don't think those two are quite drunk enough. In fact, I don't recall Gaunt taking a drink or being incapacitated by drink in the entirety of The Bowstring Murders. However, I recall that Peter Duluth is drying out in a sanatorium in Puzzle for Fools by Patrick Quentin (1936).

      The point I am making is that while things like film noir developed throughout the 1940s, they only became a major category after the war, and they seem to me to be tonally different from what went before. Wikipedia has a good list of film noir titles, and while they list a few as early as 1927, the genre only really takes off, with hundreds of titles, in 1945 and later.

  5. At the Scene of the Crime has today posted an interesting review of Spillane's One Lonely Night (1951). When I compare Dr. Priestley with Mike Hammer, the change which has come over detective fiction is evident. Dr. Priestley is only a superego; his world is one which can be reduced to perfect sense with a rational mind, and justice is served in a lawful manner. Hammer is complete id, and Priestley's direct antithesis. He is enough of a detective to solve his cases, but that is not what is really important in his books; justice is supposed to be restored by violent, extra-legal means. Hammer will reduce bad guys to a "nightmare of blue holes" with his tommy gun. This is what I mean by the relegation of the golden age technique from main stream to tributary. It is still there, but at this point it is no longer predominant, even though it reemerges from time to time. One Lonely Night is very well written and I think it is Spillane's best book.

    The question is what caused such a change?

    1. I refer you back to my comment about the publishing industry at the time. I honestly believe it’s as simple as them favoring a new style (or model) over another and concentrating on a more realistic (i.e. rawer)/suspense-based crime fiction. Ditching the GAD concept at the side of the road. Carting it back every so often as a novelty act.

      If you look at today’s market, there are more (classical) detectives published and re-published than you can possibly keep up with, because the reader has a bigger say in what’s being put out there. And how does that resurgence tally with the state of the world today? It does not. The internet (partly) restored that unjust favoring from publishers and gave readers greater access to the books they want to read. I’m afraid it’s as simple as that.

      You’re looking at what publishers decided made them the most money at the time and trying to explain that by looking at what happened in the world at that time. I’m just not of the school of thought that these world events decided the course of crime fiction. They were always a part of the genre. The last Sherlock Holmes story is basically a WWI spy story. Christie dabbled in spy thrillers and so did a few others, but didn’t had the profound, course-altering effects that the ideas of Poe, Doyle, Chesterton and Berkeley had. Much in the same way Spillane inspired writers like Max Allan Collins. Or the advent of technology and forensic science. The main fuel of mystery and crime stories have always been new ideas.

      Rex Stout (a GAD writer who crossed over in the post-GAD period) demonstrated what would've happened if new GAD-style novels had continued to be published in a 1953 novel, The Golden Spiders, in which Archie (surprisingly) tortures (!) information from a gangster. It's also not to shabby as mystery, especially for Stout mystery. Just like how he worked WWII in Not Quite Dead Enough to flesh out Wolfe and Goodwin.

      Once again, I believe the publishers had to the biggest effect on the change at the time.

      You really think Nick Noble wasn’t drunk enough? His body physically deteriorated from the huge amount of cheap sherry. Did I mention he lost his job and lived in a bar? You’re really robbing a man down on his luck from the honor of being the first alcoholic detective in fiction. That’s cold.

      By the way, sorry for the late responses.