Six Were to Die (1932) by James Ronald

Last time, I reviewed the three novelettes and bonus short story from Stories of Crime & Detection, vol. 1: The Dr. Britling Stories (2023), which is the first of twenty-some planned volumes by Moonstone Press and Chris Verner – aiming to collect all of James Ronald's detective fiction by 2025. The first installment in this series of reprints introduces the regrettably short-lived characters of Dr. Daniel Britling and his twin sister, Miss Eunice Britling, who only appeared in three novelettes and a single novel. That pulp-style locked room novel is also included in this first volume.

Ronald's Six Were to Die (1932), marking the final appearance of Dr. Daniel Britling, was originally published as a Hodder & Stoughton's Yellow Jacket Original, reprinted in 1941 by Mystery House as 6 Were to Die by "Kirk Wales" and a Cherry Tree digest edition in 1947. Verner used the version that was serialized in various newspapers around the world under the penname "Peter Gale" ("...minor punctuation and text differences between these and other versions"). Just to give you an idea that the publication history of pulp writers like James Ronald or John Russell Fearn are detective stories unto themselves.

Six Were to Die deceivingly begins with blissful scene of domesticity at the little flat in Orchard Street, which Miss Britling shared with her brother. Dr. Britling annoyed his sister by staying in bed late, delaying their breakfast and "adding insult to injury" by singing and splashing around in the bath. If I didn't know beforehand what the story is roughly about, I would have assumed from the first few pages it was going to be one of those lighthearted mysteries from the murder-can-be-fun school of Kelley Roos and the Lockridges, but the arrival of a parcel pulls it right back to the pulps. The package comes with a letter warning for the police surgeon, "this morning one Jubal Straust will call upon you and request your aid on behalf of himself and five associates," but advises Dr. Britling not "to be drawn into an affair which is none of your concern" or risk a swift, sudden and untimely death – package included a poisonous death trap as a demonstration ("...you will receive no warning with the next deadly message"). Something that has the completely opposite effect on Dr. Britling ("I don't like to be threatened. I regard it as a challenge"). Dr. Britling explains to Straust he's willing to listen to him not in spite of the anonymous threat, but because of it.

Jubal Straust is a prominent financier, "one of the crookedest members of the London Stock Exchange," who twelve years ago was one of the six partners in the Eldorado Investment Trust. There were, of course, financial shenanigans afoot that eventually caught up with them. So they scapegoated their partner and friend, Arthur Marckheim, who was sent to prison for ten years ("Besides, what is friendship? Its commercial value is nil"). After the trial concluded, they all went their separate ways, considerably richer, but now Marckheim has returned to remind them that the penalty for their double-cross is death. And knowing their former partner, they take the threat very seriously. So the five partners, Gideon Levison, Mark Annerley, Hubert Quail, Jubal Straust and has old father Israel Straust, buried themselves away in Grey Towers near Leighton Buzzard. Home of the old Straust. The sixth person on Markheim list of people to kill is his ex-wife, Cora, who's the current Mrs. Annerley.

Grey Towers is very well protected as the ten foot high fence around the estate has an integrated burglar alarm and the grounds outside are constantly patrolled by armed men, "all ex-policemen or ex-pugilists," who are armed – blowing a whistle turns on the rooftop search lights. What could go wrong? Jubal Straust is fatally poisoned while driving Dr. Britling to Grey Towers. A simple, but clever, poisoning trick demonstrating the murderer's creativity and resourcefulness. Particularly when it comes to playing on the victim's personalities, weaknesses or simply habits to help them along to an early grave. One by one, the men are poisoned under seemingly impossible circumstances or get shot in locked rooms or speeding cars.

Six Were to Die has more impossible situations than Robert Adey listed in Locked Room Murders (1991). For example, a warning from Marckheim is found inside a sealed package of playing cards or the overarching impossibility of how Marckheim can enter or move around the house without being detected. Some are better and more convincing than others, of course, but all the tricks are firmly rooted in the tradition of the pulps. I think the best of these pulp-style locked room-tricks is the poisoning of Hubert Quail, because the method to introduce the poison is ludicrous. A trick you might actually have heard about and wondered if anyone actually used in a detective story. Well, yes. Ronald tried not unsuccessfully to make it sound somewhat plausible and turning it into a locked room problem certainly helped towards that end. Another quasi-impossible situation I enjoyed is how one of the characters gets thrown out of the house and manages to sneak back in without getting caught or even spotted by the guards. It's cartoonishly clever. Something you can imagine Bugs Bunny doing to get into the house.

When it comes to the impossible crimes, Six Were to Die gives you, more or less, what can be expected from a pulp-style locked room mystery with a group of people under siege and dying under inexplicable circumstances – comparable to Brian Flynn's Invisible Death (1929) and Fearn's Account Settled (1949). Not always credible, as far as method goes, but always bubbling over with wildly imaginative, downright crazy ideas or tricks. Where it differentiates itself from other pulp stories like it is simply plot management. There's never more than a chapter between one of the impossible crimes taking place and it's solution, which made for a far tidier and tighter plot and story than had they accumulated until a lengthy explanation was needed. Not to mention adding to the overall mystery how a murderer can have the run of the place without getting caught or seen. It also cleared the way for the ending when it was time to abandoned any pretense of being a detective story and barreled full throttle into pulpville, which is where the story managed to loose me.

In the previous review, I noted that pulp writers like Ronald and Fearn wrote for a less demanding audience than the Golden Age aficionados who are discovering them today. Now I don't think anyone expects the rigor of a Golden Age mystery from a pulp novel nor will the outlandish nature of the locked room-tricks be a stumbling block for many, but after such a well written, nicely balanced and above all entertaining mystery I expected something slightly better from the conclusion. Something more inspired fitting everything that preceded it. And how the murderer had the run of the place is ridiculous. Something that's always tricky to pull of convincingly, but didn't buy it here at all. But it comes with the territory of the pulps. For every good, wildly imaginative or original idea, they do half a dozen things that makes most GAD fans want to pull out their hair at the roots.

Sorry to have to conclude this on a somewhat sour note, but I really did enjoy Six Were to Die right up until the last handful of chapters. Until then, Six Were to Die is an incredibly entertaining pulp mystery dispatching its cast of characters, left and right, under seemingly impossible circumstances and the ominous presence of the killer constantly looming over them – eating away at their nerves. It deserved a better ending. Just like Dr. Britling deserved a longer run as a series-character, because, once again, he shined as a leading character. Even his twin sister has a strong, off-page presence when she begins to exchange letters with her brother. So much more could have been done with them. However, I also realize the three Dr. Britling novelettes and this novel merely represents some of Ronald's earliest, tentative steps as a writer of pulp mysteries. Six Were to Die is perhaps not a rival to the plots of John Dickson Carr or John Rhode, but possesses all the promise, ingenuity and freshness to eventually deliver on that promise. So eagerly look forward to the coming reprints of Murder in the Family (1936), They Can't Hang Me (1938) and the "Michael Crombie" novel The Sealed Room Murder (1934).

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