Death of An Oddfellow (1938) by Eric Wood

Frank Knowles Campling was a writer of popular fiction and short stories for equally popular magazine publications, such as The Strand and Toby, with five detective novels to his credit and all of them appeared under his long-time penname, "Eric Wood," beginning with The Mystery of Maybury Manor (1920) – followed by a gap of seventeen years. And then, out of nowhere, he returned to the genre under his old moniker and penned four detective novels during a brief two-year period.

Two of those titles, Death in the Mews (1937) and Death of An Oddfellow (1938), are helmed by a pair of early forensic investigators.     

Arnold Keene and Bernard Young are forensic experts and "retained specialists of Scotland Yard and the Home Office." They're in close contact with one of the top detectives of the Yard, Chief Detective Inspector Bulcraig, but his role in the series appears to be limited to giving Keene and Young the green-light to usurp the investigation and end up doing more than merely analyzing physical evidence – which is exactly what happened in their last recorded case. So you can argue that this series represents a missing link between R. Austin Freeman's Dr. John Thorndyke and the modern forensic crime-scene analysts of the small screen (e.g. the CSI franchise). 

Death of An Oddfellow begins with a phone-call from Bulcraig, summoning Keene and Young to the village of Mancing, Bedfordshire, where a fortnight ago a man had disappeared under dubious circumstances.

Jeremiah Harding was the treasurer of an Oddfellow's Lodge, a fraternity of businessman who lend each other money, who had simply disappeared with 500 pounds belonging to the Lodge. However, the sensation has since not subsided in Mancing. On the contrary. One of the local artists, Sumner, was the victim of a burglary and his windmill was set ablaze, but when firefighters began to drain a nearby mill-pond for water they made a gruesome discovery. A naked, mud-caked body of a man without a head and hands!

So the police not only has to find a murderer, but also determine to whom the body belongs, which is where Keene and Young come into the picture. And the highlight of the story really is seeing them at work as scientific detectives.

Keene and Young do not only peer through microscopes, analyze bloodstains and study "the teeth marks of the saw" on the bones, but also reconstruct the face of the dead man (once the skull is found) with Plasticine and gave a remarkable demonstration on how to preserve "footprints in the dust." I have no idea whether or not you can make a cast of a dust-print, however, the scene could have easily been used in an episode of CSI.

Unfortunately, the plot is plain, simple and sorely lacked the ingenuity of the scientific methods used to unravel it. There's not much else that I can say except that you, as the reader, can't do much more than follow Keene and Young around as they go over all of the evidence that'll eventually lead them to the murderer. Death of An Oddfellow is really one of those stories about detectives rather than an actual detective story. I suppose you can also link this short-lived series to the police novels of Basil Thomson, which also tend to have simple, straightforward plots (e.g. The Milliner's Hat Mystery, 1937) where proper police work by a team of policemen is the main attraction of the stories. The same seems to go for Wood.

Despite the plot's simplicity, I did eye the completely wrong person early on the story. One of the artists, Ritsley, turns out to be clay-modeler with shelves full of statuettes, busts and plaques. The skull was still missing at this point and assumed the skull could have been hidden inside a clay bust. After it had been boiled clean, of course. So, I thought I had spotted the murderer, which practically solving half of the case, but then my main suspect had the impudence to get himself killed a chapter, or so, later – ruining my, uh, spotless reputation as an armchair detective. Anyway, I have padded out this post long enough. Time to put it out of its misery.

Historically, Death of An Oddfellow offers the modern detective readers a fascinating depiction of two early crime-scene investigators at work, who use science to detect the criminal, but the traditional-minded reader who wants a cunning, old-fashioned detective story are advised to stay clear of this one. I know what you like and this is not it. And to those who are still interested: Black Heath reissued all but one of Wood's detective novels as cheap ebooks.

On a final note, my last few reads have not exactly been first-rate detective stories and my aim is to chance that with my next one. I had already selected two titles, one with a cast-iron guarentee of fair play, but the second batch of Christopher Bush novels was just released by Dean Street Press. So I can finally take a look at Bush's most Carrian mystery novel.  

1 comment:

  1. I recently read this novel, along with his other detective books, after doing the Campling family tree. Frank Knowles Campling was my great uncle. Death of an Oddfellow was a trip through his family. Mancing was Potton where his dad lived, the places around that were mentioned weren’t disguised. Sandy, Biggleswade, Everton Heath....... he describes old places within Potton, the roads and pubs .
    The names, Jeramiah-his dads name, Storton Mill his sisters married name etc. Etc.

    He certainly made by smile.