An International Affair

"I have fought for the defense of order, in the name of justice, as soldiers fight for the defense of their country, beneath the flag of their regiment. I had no epaulettes, but I ran as many risks as they, and I exposed my life everyday as they do."
- Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857)
During World War II, a small group of British intelligence officers contrived a strategy with the objective of convincing the Axis Powers that an Allied invasion of the Nazi occupied territories of Greece and Sardinia was imminent, which was done to shift their attention and defenses away from the actual target of the Allies – the Italian-held island of Sicily. A daring piece of deception, which was codenamed "Operation Mincemeat," and the history books show it was a success.

The deception by the Allies was accomplished by simply planting false documents on a corpse, dressed as a downed airman, who had been given a new identity and dumped for this purpose on the Spanish coast. It was an outlandish plan that had been suggested by Lieutenant-Commander Ian Fleming, of James Bond fame, but the idea was not original to him. He had gotten the idea from a detective story.

Fleming compiled an inter-departmental note, dubbed by his superior as the "Trout Memo," in which he brought up the following suggestion that was used in a book by Sir Basil Thomson: a body clad in the uniform of an airman, "with dispatches in his pocket," could be dropped on the coast and landed there as a result from "a parachute that failed" – ending on a note that "there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Navel Hospital." The book in question is The Milliner's Hat Mystery (1937) and the plot of the story pits the police of two countries against a gang of international dope peddlers.

The Milliner’s Hat Mystery begins with the inquest on the body of a murdered man, shot through the head, who was found in a barn by a couple of innocent motorists seeking shelter from a thunderstorm. Documents, papers and business cards found on the slain man identify him as "John Whitaker," but the addresses and phone numbers proved to be all dead-end leads.

So the coroner decided "to adjourn the inquest until the police have had time to complete their enquiries" and the time is well used to probe deeper into the case.

A fractured car window is found at a garage, several miles down the road from the barn, which was obviously damaged by a pistol shot. It proves to be the first of a handful of tangible clues that help them to establish the dead man's real identity. A man who turns out to have lived a double life: one as a modest accountant of the Asiatic Bank and the other as an extravagant man of apparently "private means," but it becomes apparent his income did not sprang from a legal source and this appears to be connected to a couple of American gentlemen, a Mr. Blake and Mr. Lewis – every piece of evidence indicates that the dead man may have been "taken for a ride" by them.

However, the most important scrap of evidence is found in a coat pocket, "a milliner’s bill from the Maison Germaine in the rue Duphot," a Parisian hat shop, which states "a hundred thousand francs' worth of ladies' hats" was spent by the victim! It was a clue pointing straight across the channel.

This is the point where the book begins to change into a different kind of story, but, to be honest, The Milliner's Hat Mystery can be categorized under a number of different sub-genres: an early police procedural, a semi-inverted mystery, a mild adventure/thriller yarn and a chase tale, but, in the end, I think it can best be labeled as a story about detectives rather than a detective story. Something that's demonstrated in the policemen who populate the pages of this book. 

Thomson's series character, a policeman named Richardson, who was introduced in Richardson's First Case (1933), has climbed the ranks to the position of Chief Constable, but he’s merely a background character here and his contribution to the investigation is limited to rubberstamping Chief Inspector Vincent's trip abroad.

It is Chief Inspector Vincent who the reader follows on his journey, peddling between England and France, as he and his French colleagues attempt to find the two Americans, uncover a corrupt politician and assisted the French authorities in shutting down "another of these poison factories," which, surprisingly, made for the best part of the story. The murder is not as solidly attached to the drug trafficking business as it first appeared and the explanation was poorly handled.

But maybe I'm too harsh about that point, because the plot-threads regarding the drug smuggling business seem to indicate that Thomson did not set out to write a traditional murder mystery. The murder and opening chapters impressed me as a vehicle to explore the problem of drugs, dope pushers and their victims. Usually, these drug-related plot-threads hovered discretely in the background of classic detective stories, such as Agatha Christie's Peril at End House (1932), Ngaio Marsh's Swing, Brother, Swing (1949) and John Rowland's Calamity in Kent (1950), but here it was pushed to the foreground – even showing in one of the characters the devastating effects of a heroine habit.

So, while I would not call The Milliner's Hat Mystery a classic example of traditional crime-fiction, I would recommend the book on the strength of its historical importance. The Milliner's Hat Mystery not only provided an idea to an important mission from World War II, but genre-historians might also want to give it a glance as an early predecessor of the modern crime novel. On top of that, Thomson's writing is, even after eighty years, extremely readable. Martin Edwards noted in his introduction "there is a zest about the stories," which, surprisingly, came from "a man in his seventies." I agree. In this regard, Thomson seems to have been the equivalent of Rex Stout, whose stories from the 1980s were as crisp and readable as those from the first decades of his writing career.

Well, that’s the end of this review and the next one will probably be of something slightly more traditional than The Milliner's Hat Mystery.


  1. Thanks for the review. This one sounds interesting. One of the interesting things about the older mysteries was that a fair number of them imaginatively tried out new ideas on crime and detection which could be applied in real life. I don't see that in modern mysteries at all, which is odd because the new technologies of the last ten years should be a fruitful source of new ideas for crime and detection stories. In the old days, there would have been dozens of novels about the impact of the computer on crime and detection. Long before the coming of the Internet, Edward D. Hoch wrote a series of stories about the Computer Cops which did just that job in the early 1970s. Maybe I am just missing things, but I can't find hardly anything like that now. The closest I came was Red Herring by Archer Mayor which attempted to make use of DNA identification technology, but the book was so terribly done I had to strike Mayor permanently from my reading list. I guess that modern mystery authors would prefer to write fake historical mysteries so that they don't have to learn the new technology.

    1. Sadly, you're not wrong and I have mentioned before how the Golden Age actually gave readers a choice what kind of crime stories they wanted to read, which could be anything from puzzle-oriented or character-driven mysteries to thrillers, spy stories or even genre-benders. There was literarily a universe of diversity wedged between those examples, but the genre today seems to be largely stuck between dark, gritty and hardboiled and sweet, cutesy and cozy.

      Luckily, there have been a flood of reprints in recent years and there are still some modern writers who know how to plot a detective story, but very few make it on the bestseller lists.

      By the way, your comment about computers in classical detectives brought a book to mind, Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate, which is alternatively known as Death by Computer and has been on my wishlist for eons. The book was written by Doris Miles Disney, who began writing in the 1940s, and the title is a reference to a warning written on computer punch cards. So there you have a potential book from a Golden Age author exploring the possibilities a computer could offer to a traditional plot. I remember reading some positive comments about the story.

      Keigo Higashino's The Devotion of Suspect X had an interesting and original use for DNA evidence, which was even use as a bit of misdirection. But that's already revealing too much about the plot. I recommend reading it for yourself, if you have not done so already.

  2. I like pretty much the detective stories of Doris Miles Disney I have read, especially the Jeff DiMarco books. As far as Do not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate goes, it is easily available in both hard and soft cover on Amazon.com. For some reason, the prices range from about $4 to $100. From descriptions of the book, however, it does not sound like the computer plays a central role; it sounds more like a dating service/woman in peril type of book. I find that if you want some fairly rigorous scientific thought in your detective novel, you have to go with the science fiction authors who use mystery plots, such as the Phil D'Amato books of Paul Levinson.

    1. I remember reading one of the plot-threads dealt with computer punch-cards and there was some praise for the commentary about the potential loss of privacy these computerized information networks (i.e. the internet) could bring with it, which was very perceptive for a writer from the 40s.

      And I can barely come up with any detective stories, pre-1990s, in which computer technology plays a significant role. There's a Black Widowers short story, from the early 80s, which Asimov has them attempt to guess a password, but that's about it.

      Well, there was R. Daneel Olivaw, from Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, but he's purely SF creation.

    2. Prior to about 1995, any use of the computer network in a mystery would also have classified it as science fiction. But the point I am making is that virtually every communication channel on the planet has folded into, or is in the process of folding into the net. The thing is ubiquitous. Further, we are now gearing up for the "Internet of things" where all of our appliances will be connected to the Internet as well. This thing is so vast that it ought to be the next detective story category, like the locked room or the dying message. The Internet could serve as a basis for a huge number of impossible crime stories. The same things goes for all our new biology technology and medical techniques. And yet I see virtually nothing being done with them. Aside from the Hoch computer stories from the 1970s I mentioned above(which are science fiction) I see virtually nothing being done with this. Even pulling off The Man Who Never Was scheme required the officers to understand pulmonary disease. I recall that Michael Connelly's book The Poet (1996) made use of the Internet as an element of detection, but after that virtually nothing I can find. In the Golden Age, John Rhode and the rest would have been all over this theme.

    3. In the past, I have wondered on this blog what Golden Era writers would have done with all of our modern innovations.

      For example, Christie wrote a really good short story, entitled "Wireless," in which a fairly modern convience, radio, is introduced to an elderly lady who must have lived her best years in the 1800s. Of course, it's used as clever and new kind of "murder weapon" to kill the poor woman.

      Christie was not even the most technical writer from that period. So just imagine what Rhode, Crofts and Freeman would have done with everything we have today. I guess we could have looked forward to some online supported alibis.

  3. Wow, never knew that trivia about "Operation Mincemeat". I've seen the movie based on Montagu's book called The Man Who Never Was with Clifton Webb in one of most impressive roles. I think I'll order this one. Barzun was no real fan of Thomson, not that his dismissals of very good writers and very good books has ever stopped me from reading them. But an overall thumbs down from ol' Jacques coupled with tepid contemporary reviews I've read have stopped me from ordering any of these Thomson reprints. Until now, that is. I like that this particular book has a place in military and espionage history. Thanks for this review.

    1. As I said in my review, I do not think this is a classic example of classical crime fiction of any kind, but it's a pleasantly written story and is of historical importance for having inspired the idea behind "Operation Mincemeat." And for being an early example of the modern crime novel. So keep that in mind and you probably won't be let down by this one.

  4. A wonderful review, Tomcat. I'm with John - who knew about this literary link to OPERATION MINCEMEAT? I've seen the film of course and read the excellent book by Ben MacIntyre, but this bit of trivia makes me want to read this particular book especially since the Richardson books are available for my Kindle at very little money.

    1. I sincerely hope I've not over-hyped the book, because, by itself, it's not the best or cleverest piece of crime-fiction ever written, but the writing and characters were good and pleasant enough. It really becomes an interesting story when you know the book played a role in one of the most important periods in (modern) history.