Murder in Blue (1937) by Clifford Witting

Clifford Witting was a British mystery writers, "a noteworthy figure from the Golden Age of English detection," who published a total of sixteen, "genuinely engrossing," detective novels from 1937 through 1964, but after he died his work tumbled into obscurity – where he languished until recently. Back in 2020, Galileo Publishers reissued Witting's slightly unconventional Christmas mystery, Catt Out of the Bag (1939), which proved to be first of many more. Galileo is right on track in bringing all of Witting's detective novels back in print. Midsummer Murder (1937), Measure for Murder (1941) and Dead on Time (1948) have already returned to print, while new editions of Subject—Murder (1945) and Let X Be the Murderer (1947) are scheduled to be published next year. The same year Catt Out of the Bag returned to print, they also reissued Witting's inaugural mystery novel.

This new reprint edition of Murder in Blue (1937) opens with a brief note from his now nearly 90-year-old daughter, Diana Cummings, who shares that her father wrote the book "while he was still commuting to London for his day job and he worked on it every evening." And how her crying in the next room probably distracted him more than once from "the very complicated business of writing a detective story." I appreciated this short, personal note and hope Witting really would have been thrilled knowing "that some 84 years later it would be reprinted amid a renewed interest in the Golden Age of Detection." I've always been curious and worried what those Golden Age writers would have thought of us basket cases obsessing over their detective stories in a space they would have viewed as pure science-fiction. Anyway, on to the story! 

Murder in Blue reads like an introduction to the series. A series that takes place in a small, fictitious town named Paulsfield, behind the South Downs, which Witting closely modeled on Petersfield in Hampshire – included "many references to the real town as it was in the mid-1930s." The opening chapter, or rather pages, introduces the reader to the narrator, John Rutherford, who runs a bookstore on Paulsfield Square and stumbles across a body while out on an evening stroll. On the Hazeloak road, Rutherford discovered the body of Police Constable Johnson, of the Downshire County Constabulary, lying on the grass. His head had been "terribly battered" by "a blunt implement" and the bicycle was lying on the opposite side of the road to the body.

A rainy, melancholic beginning that had moments early on in the story suggesting something more in line with Henry Wade's Constable, Guard Thyself (1934) than the lighthearted mystery that was promised in several reviews. Both concern the murder of a policeman and Wade has the haunting memories of the Great War hanging over his novel. That same specter briefly appears in Murder in Blue as Constable Johnson's injuries bring back those memories ("I went through four years of it... and tonight brings it all back again. The rain and darkness and death—and the mud"). On the following day, while going over the crime scene, they hear a distant explosion and take off their hats to observe the two minutes' silence the Armistice Day ceremony. But that specter quickly dissipates. Second and third chapter really set the tone for the rest of the story.

John Rutherford is in at the death with the murder being discovered on page one, but the second and third chapter take a detour to formally introduce the narrator, "the story of an ordinary chap who became involved in a murder case," which resulted in two of the most amusing and entertaining chapters in the whole book – beginning with how his bookshop came into existence. Rutherford bought an old candy story, dating back to the 1600s, on the south-eastern corner of the town square and turned it into a successful, subscription based bookstore that operated like a library. How did he manage to do that? Simply by banking on small town snobbery and charged "an exorbitant rate of subscription," because "the average provincial lady will willingly pay "through the nose" provided that she is certain that other people notice her doing it." Somehow, it worked. The third chapter introduces Rutherford's 19-year-old shop assistant, George Stubbings, who's "an expert on detective fiction" and managed somehow to keep pace with the stock of detective-and thriller novels. So he can discuss the books with his boss and customers ("This'll go well, sir. The man knows his job. He doesn't try to thrill you with mechanical devices"). A great character and couldn't agree more with John Norris that "whenever George sets foot on the scene the book gets a welcome humorous lift."

So, of course, George is as excited to be so close to a local murder mystery as he's that Rutherford, sort of, aids Witting's series-detective, Inspector Harry Charlton. The problem they face can be summed as follow: was Johnson murdered because he was a policeman or a Lothario who played with fire? A problem further complicated by swapped bicycles ("bicycles seem to be playing quite a big part in this case"), a police constables uniform and Johnson's mysterious companion who was seen dressed in a constable's cape and cap.

Regrettably, the solution betrays the unpracticed hand of the first-time detective novelist. It feels like Witting arbitrarily selected the murderer from the cast of characters, tacked on a motive and produced a vital clue out of thin air that destroyed the murderer's alibi. There's has been no ghost of a hint in the book to either the motive or vital clue, which soured what otherwise would have been a first-rate detective novel. However, I suspect Witting had two alternate solutions in mind that got ditched because he had grown fond of the character. You see there were some clues and hints pointing at George. Firstly, Witting never explained why the dog who saved Rutherford backed away from George with "his ears down and a let's-get-out-of-here look about him." Secondly, Rutherford spotted Charlton pocketing "a scrap of pink-coloured paper" at the crime scene and under certain lighting, or conditions, orange can appear (in a split second) to be pink or pink-ish in color. The books in Rutherford's store all have striking, orange-colored in-store dust-jackets on which the name of the store is printed in big, bold letters ("VOSLIVRES"). It could have been intended as a torn piece from a dust-jacket that appeared to be pink as it disappeared in a flash into the inspector's pocket. And, if it was, it suggests the murderer is linked to the story as either a customer or employee. Thirdly, Charlton half-mockingly calls the murderer a craftsman who simply couldn't quietly fade away, "that was far too primitive," but had to leave "a selection of clearly marked trails" calculated to lead them in "a dozen wrong directions" – even sending a "confounded bit of doggerel" ("Murder in blue, Murder in blue. Once there was one, soon there'll be two'). This is more in line with George than the person who eventually revealed as the murderer.

So it would not surprise me George was originally intended as the murderer and him getting married by the end could have provided him with a motive, but Witting couldn't bring himself to hand George over to the hangman or have him killed off. The second death strongly hints at another possible solution (ROT13: Gur Oveyfgbar Tnzovg), which would have been a little on the obvious side, but the method is absolutely ingenious! Witting should have used that method to write a case-of-the-constant-suicides type of detective novel in which perfectly happy, non-suicidal people keep walking head-first into oncoming trains. 

Murder in Blue is an entertainingly written, but clumsily-plotted, debut from a mystery writer who (to quote Barzun & Taylor) "started feebly, improved to a point of high competence and has since shown a marked capacity for character and situation" as shown in Catt Out of the Bag. I can only recommend Murder in Blue as a well-written, wittily characterized introduction to a short-lived series with a dash romance, dangerous situations and plenty of humor. Just a shame the plot didn't held up in the end, but you have to make some allowances for a mystery writer's first stab at the genre. Witting already demonstrated he would go on the improve tremendously on his plots. I'm definitely going to dip into Midsummer Murder or Dead on Time as I eagerly await the republication of Witting's reputed masterpiece, Subject—Murder.

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