Crime in Kensington (1933) by Christopher St. John Sprigg

Earlier this month, I reviewed The Six Queer Things (1936) by Christopher St. John Sprigg and pointed to the upcoming releases of Crime in Kensington (1933), The Perfect Alibi (1934) and Death of a Queen (1935), published by Moonstone Press, but the release date of September 10, 2018, came and went without them becoming available – leaving me a little bit disappointed. Fortunately, there was an unexpected surprise when another publisher reissued two of the titles I had been most looking forward to reading!

Black Heath has a miscellaneous catalog of Golden Age detective novels and turn-of-the-century thrillers of varying quality. There are some really good or intriguing titles on their list, such as Edward Gellibrand's The Windblow Mystery (1926), John V. Turner's Death Must Have Laughed (1932) and Nicholas Brady's outlandishly fantastic The Fair Murder (1933), but the overall quality has now risen with the single addition of Sprigg.

As of this writing, Black Heath has reissued Crime in Kensington and Death of a Queen. Hopefully, more will follow suit!

I picked the first mystery novel Sprigg ever published, Crime in Kensington, published in the United States under the suitable title Pass the Body, which always struck me as a must read for every self-respecting locked room fanboy, but John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, said in the comments on my review of Death of an Airman (1935) that he was not sure it was for me – warning me that I might find "the solution uninspired and underwhelming." Sure, the locked room trick was childishly easy to figure out, but the plot had so much more to offer than just an apparently miraculous disappearance. John was not entirely right this time. Did you read that, John? You were more wrong than right on this one. Suck on that!

Crime in Kensington reminded me of a lighter, but still darkly humorous, English counterpart of Anita Blackmon's Murder á la Richelieu (1937), which shares a very similar setting that becomes the backdrop of a clever, dark and gruesome crime.

Charles Venables is a monocled policeman-turned-journalist who currently works as a gossip-columnist for the Mercury, a powerful newspaper, that brings him to London. A long-time friend and romantic interest, Lady Viola Merritt, who works as a commercial artist from a residential hotel in Kensington invites him to take rooms at The Garden Hotel. She describes it as a comfortable, amazingly cheap hotel, but "there is something weird about the place" that she can't quite make out. And filled with "such odd people."

The moment Venables walked into The Garden Hotel it was like entering "the plot of a thriller of the vulgarest and most exciting description." Venables overhears how the husband of the proprietress, Mrs. Budge, threatened to slit her throat from ear to ear and meets a slightly sinister-looking, one-eyed Egyptian, named Eppoliki, who recognizes Venables – asking him if their "little hostess's game is up." Later that evening, Mrs. Budge has been put to bed with pleurisy. Or, as we so eloquently say in my country, de pleuris staat op het punt van uitbreken in The Garden Hotel. It's our way of saying shit is about to hit the fan. :)

That evening, Nurse Evans sees how Miss Sanctuary put her head round the door of the sick-room to say that Mrs. Budge is sleeping nicely when "a gloved hand emerged round the edge of the door" and "fastened about her throat." A long, drawn-out scream is followed by the slamming and locking of the door. When the door is opened by shooting the lock, Mrs. Budge and Miss Sanctuary have inexplicably vanished!

Venables is on the premise when this happened and is tasked by the Chief of the Mercury to get an angle on the case before the police, which allows him to rise from the position a special, on-the-scene correspondent to the star crime-reporter of the Mercury. Despite his monocle, wit and somewhat pompous appearance, Venables is a very different and more likable character than the detective he was obviously based on, Dorothy L. Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey. You can really warm to him as a detective-character and he works together very well with the competent Detective Inspector Bernard Bray of Scotland Yard. Even though the latter makes a mistake or two when suspects where on the verge of spilling the beans about the hotel.

The police can do very little at this point in the story, as they have nothing to go on, but this changes when one of the hotel guests decided to hold a séance.

Miss Mumby is a terribly rich, elderly lady who "spends all her money on séances and cats" and her rooms are covered in either cat hairs or cat images. She has a large black tomcat with a torn earn, named Socrates, who she attempted to use as a bloodhound to find the missing proprietress without much success. Socrates also has a role to play at the séance, who went beserk towards the end, which lead to a gruesome discovery that lead to the police turning the hotel inside out – effectively turning their inquiry into a murder investigation. I particularly liked the scene with the hatbox and crowd of sight-seers outside of the hotel. Delightfully dark and comedic.

I can't reveal much more about the plot without giving away any vital information, but Crime in Kensington is obviously the work of a young, talented and promising, but inexperienced, mystery writer who could have become a household name had he stuck with the genre. Obviously, the problem of the locked bedroom is easily penetrated and the identity of the murderer was equally obvious. However, the why was not as easy to figure out and could have kicked myself for missing a blatant clue, or more of a hint, in this regard and then you have the secret of the hotel room, which was genuinely clever and original. Sprigg used a variation on this plot-thread in The Six Queer Things.

And then there's the excellent writing, story-telling, characters and splashes of dark humor. One scene that comes to mind is when Bray entered the room of Rev. Septimus Blood, who's obsessed with reconstructing the Coptic rites, and finds him with an embroidered cone in front of the mirror. So he groans "Oh Lord... another lunatic." That should give you an idea about the characters populating The Garden Hotel.
In summation, Crime in Kensington is a well written, proficiently plotted, but imperfect, debut from a promising mystery writer who, sadly, only got to write seven detective novels and some short stories during his short life. I really enjoyed me time with this book, even if it failed to (fully) fool me. So definitely recommended to everyone who loves a good, old-fashioned detective story.

This leaves me with one problem: what to read next? I want to immediately dip into Death of a Queen, but have already reviewed quite a few locked room novels and short stories recently. So I might do a non-impossible crime before tackling Death of a Queen. However, it's very tempting to do two Sprigg's back-to-back. But we'll see.


  1. "Suck on that!" Oh dear. Don't tell me you've kept hidden all these years that you're really an American frat boy. I'm stunned.

    There's another digital version of this Sprigg novel available from Bruin Books, possibly only available to US buyers. It's published under the US title Pass the Body with a lurid cover that seems a homage to American pulp magazines. Death of a Queen was supposedly coming from an outfit called Moonstone Press last month (release date was Sept 2018) but the pages previously selling that edition on both US & UK amazon sites have suddenly vanished. The Moonstone Press website still exists and promises all sorts of books that can't be bought anywhere. Very fishy.

    Pattern of Murder review coming in a few days. It's like a combination of a Hitchcock movie and a 1970s episode of "Columbo." With the exception of the naive treatment of the romantic parts (the Helen/Mark/Terry triangle, esp.) it's thoroughly engrossing and a fascinating look at the life of a movie projectionist and how a cinema operated in 1957. Really enjoyed it. I'd class in the Top Five of Fearn books I've read.

    1. ""Suck on that!" Oh dear. Don't tell me you've kept hidden all these years that you're really an American frat boy. I'm stunned."

      If you want, you can also roll that into a blunt and smoke it. ;)

      I mentioned Moonstone Press and their failure to deliver on their promise in the review, but luckily, Black Heath came to rescue and republished it alongside Death of a Queen. And that review is scheduled for next week. Moonstone Press looks fishy, but hope they're just having startup problems and will eventually start publishing.

      Glad you liked Pattern for Murder! I knew you would like it. Easily one of Fearn's best and unbelievable it went unpublished during his lifetime. You should read my review, because it has some background info (supplied by Philip Harbottle) on Fearn's firsthand experience with cinema work.

      By the way, I'm planning to do a list of my favorite Fearn's at the end of the year.

    2. I skipped right over the first paragraph and started on paragraph two. What a pathetic old man I've become. Must be long term effects of all those blunts I smoked decades ago. :^D

      I bought a copy of a first edition of DEATH OF A QUEEN when I found it quite serendipitously three years ago but never read it. I'll try to get to it next month and there will be two more reviews of that once upon a time truly rare book. Martin Edwards wrote it up a while ago on his blog but all I recall is his comparison to Hope's Ruritania swashbuckling adventure novels. I think it was only a comment in passing about the setting being similar and not the plot.

    3. Y-you skipped part of my review? I'm stunned and devastated.

      Death of a Queen has a touch of Ruritania, but Sprigg handling of the setting is very different from what you'd expect. Sprigg did a lot of "world building" by giving his fictitious country it's own culture, political system and history, which I really liked. And the plot was as classical as it was great. My full review is scheduled for next week (November 1). So stay tuned.

  2. Thanks for reviewing this title as I have only read DOAA, but have wanted to sample a bit more of his work. Alas paper copies are quite thin and expensive on the ground. I'll keep my eyes peeled...

    1. There's a new, relatively cheap paperback edition available under its U.S. title, Pass the Body, which John mentioned in his comment above.