Stories of Crime & Detection, vol. 1: The Dr. Britling Stories (2023) by James Ronald

James Ronald was a Scottish-born writer of detective stories, pulp-style mysteries and thrillers, but, despite receiving high praise for his "ingenuity, freshness, and sharp sense of humour," Ronald passed into obscurity upon his death in 1972 – going out-of-print practically immediately. So nearly all of his work became scarce, often expensive collector items and, if they were not completely forgotten, mentioned every now or then in passing (see "99 Novels for a Locked Room Library"). That slowly began to change in the 2010s with the rise of the Golden Age mystery blogs.

The first to bring up James Ronald was John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, who reviewed They Can't Hang Me (1938) in 2013 and Death Croons the Blues (1934), The Sealed Room Murder (1934; as by "Michael Crombie") and The House of Horror (1935; as by "Michael Crombie") in 2019. Jim Noy, of The Invisible Event, began adding to the intrigue in 2018 with four and five-star reviews of Six Were to Die (1932), Murder in the Family (1936) and This Way Out (1939). So included Ronald's work in "Curiosity is Killing the Cat: Detective Novels That Need to Be Reprinted" on the strength of those reviews, but John turned up in the comments with some bad news. Moonstone Press tried and nearly succeeded in securing the rights to five of Ronald's novels, but family members put a stop to it ("...they do not have fond memories of the man and they would prefer if he were not back in print"). It looked as if Ronald was doomed to obscurity for the foreseeable future and only sheer serendipity would get me a copy of Six Were to Die, The Sealed Room Murder or They Can't Hang Me.

Somehow, someway, Moonstone Press managed to resolve the dispute and secured the rights to not only five of those elusive, long out-of-print novels, but Ronald's entire body of works – covering everything from his early short stories to those ultra rare locked room mystery novels. A 14-volume reprint project scheduled to be published over the next two years!

Stories of Crime & Detection, vol. 1: The Dr. Britling Stories (2023) was published last December and collected three pulp fiction novelettes, a short story and one of Ronald's elusive impossible crime novels. I also recommend you read the introduction by Chris Verner, son of Gerald Verner, who gives both background details about the author as well as the Herculean task in tracking down, piecing together and restoring all those stories ("a treasure hunt for lost tales"). Many of which were published under a retinue of pseudonyms in newspaper serials or obscure pulp magazines. Not to mention that a lot of his work exited in multiple, slightly differing versions from one publication to another. It reminded me of the exhaustive, decades-long archaeological detective work Philip Harbottle had to undertake to disentangle John Russell Fearn's labyrinthine publication history and tangle of pennames in order to get his work back in print. See, for example, Harbottle's 2017 guest-post "The Detective Fiction of John Russell Fearn."

I'm going to tackle this collection in two parts. First up are the three novelettes and short story. Six Were to Die is going to be discussed separately in the next post.

These three novelettes introduce a regrettably short-lived series-character, Dr. Daniel Britling. A short, slim and meticulously dressed police surgeon with a Vandyke beard and a pearl-gray fedora on his large head, "nothing of his association with crime or the police was suggested by his appearance," but Dr. Britling does more than merely examining bodies – playing "an active part in unravelling more than one mystery." Dr. Britling is a student of crime and acting as a quasi-official amateur detective a favorite pastime ("criminology was his hobby..."). Scotland Yard had to admit that whenever Dr. Britling "put his enterprising finger into the pie of criminal detection, he almost invariably pulled out the plum that the detective in charge had groped for in vain."

"The Green Ghost Murder," originally published in the April, 1931, issue of Hush Magazine introduces Dr. Britling and his twin sister, Eunice, who rented a furnished cottage in Carstow where Dr. Britling is recuperating from a bout with pneumonia. Eunice knows her brother's weakness for any kind of mystery and, as she expected, her brother becomes very interested in the news that the Green Ghost of Heaton Forest, "famous in local legend," has returned from nearly a century of slumber ("...to protest against the houses which now stand where its forest, dark and impenetrable, once stood?"). However, the problem of the mounting sightings of the luminous green ghost is not the primary problem of the story, which is easy to see through, but that makes it all the more baffling when the green ghost apparently stabs Carstow's leading bookmaker to death inside his garden. A murder that was witnessed by the victim's cook!

A great, promising and even clever setup as knowing who plays the ghost makes the murder seem even more baffling, but, as remarked elsewhere, "The Green Ghost Murder" is pure pulp fiction written against a hard deadline – polishing never took place. More importantly, they were written for a less demanding audience than the Golden Age aficionados that pour over these stories today. And the ending shows it as the story takes a sharp turn into pulpville! So not much here in terms of a proper detective story, but the two elderly Britling twins shine as characters in this story. For example, Dr. Britling has to deal with a nosy newspaper reporter who's desperate for an interview, but gets a hard no from the police surgeon, "if I allowed you to tell your readers how much cleverer than the police I am, do you suppose the police would ever allow me to 'nose' about the scene of a murder again?" ("they'd simply point to the body, allow me to make my examination, then lead me gently but firmly to the door"). What a waste, the Britlings only made a handful of appearances.

"Too Many Motives" predates the first story in this series, originally published in the April, 1930, issue of 20-Story Magazine, but Chris Verner suspects "The Green Ghost Murder" must have had "a preceding publication somewhere, or the story sat on the shelf." The publication histories of these pulp, or pulp adjacent, writers are practically detective stories by themselves. Anyway, the story begins with a birthday dinner in honor of an enormously wealthy financier, Mark Savile, who "was despised even by fellow-financiers" ("thousands of small investors lost their savings in the crash of his bubble company"). Savile's grim sense of humor tempted him to invite four men with a motive to kill him and spends the evening needling them, until one of them assaults him, but did he, or one of the other three, came back to finish the job? Dr. Britling is called upon to make sense of a murder with too many motives, but Ronald borrowed the solution from a Sherlock Holmes. A particular kind of solution I loath as much as others dislike Conan Doyle's "Birlstone Gambit." That being said, Ronald appears to be the first to have employed this particular variation on that now shopworn idea and some credit should go his way for not making it a locked room mystery. Only serious problem the story has is that the murderer's plan makes no sense, psychologically or simply long term (HUGE SPOILER/ROT13: Fnivyr jnf “n pbjneq ng urneg,” ohg fubg uvzfrys va gur urnq naq znqr gur tha qvfnccrne hc gur puvzarl va beqre gb pnfg rgreany fhfcvpvba ba gubfr sbhe vaabprag zra... Jul abg fvzcyl gnxr cbvfba juvyr gurl jrer qvavat naq svtugvat, orpnhfr gung tha vf tbvat gb or sbhaq fbbare be yngre. Naq gung jbhyq ehva gur ybat grez nvzf bs gur cyna. So not a personal favorite.

Fortunately, the next two stories are much better. "Find the Lady" was originally published in the May, 1931, issue of Hush Magazine and is the best of the three novelettes. Dr. Britling is asked by Lord Clavering to track down his niece, Lady Frances Dorian, who disappeared without a trace from the Royal Lancaster Hotel – where she had been living for some months. One day, she packed her belonging, settled the bill and went away. Yet, nobody saw her leave the hotel. The aunt of Lord Clavering and Lady Frances, Lady Agatha Dorian, is screaming blue murder, but refuses to call in Scotland Yard. Lord Clavering asks Dr. Britling to nose around the hotel and he's only to eager to oblige ("I love to dabble in these things, but I have no wish to profit by my hobby"). So the police surgeon and hobby-horse detective begins to nose around the hotel and questions everyone from the manager and doorman to the chambermaid and switchboard operator, which comes with a stronger spot of clueing than the previous two stories. Not the most intricate or complicated detective stories written in 1930s, but not too bad on whole and loved Dr. Britling acting as a spirited, buzzing amateur sleuth. Note that "Find the Lady" also has some Sherlockian echoes ("The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax," 1911), but that's all they are. Just echoes. Ronald wrote a different story around the idea of a Lady Frances vanishing from a hotel.

"Blind Man's Bluff," originally printed in the October 5, 1929, publication of the Daily Mail and is Ronald's first published short story. It's not a detective or pulp-style mystery, but a simple, very well done crime story. Martin Longworth is a blind man who learned over the decades to rely on his other senses and his sharp hearing noticed a few familiar characteristics about the new owner of the local tobacco shop. But where has he heard them before? And in what connection? Ronald only has about 10 pages to tell the story, but Martin Longworth feels as fleshed out and convincing as Baynard Kendrick's blind detective, Captain Duncan Maclain. So not bad for a first stab at the crime-and detective story.

Going into this collection, I expected "The Green Ghost Murder" and "Too Many Motives" to emerge as my unsurprising favorites. After all, you don't have to be Sherlock Holmes or Nostradamus to know whether, or not, something is to my liking. And those two novelettes appeared to fit the bill. But no. "Find the Lady" and "Blind Man's Bluff" proved to be the two unexpected standouts. Still a very mixed bag of tricks with the characters of Dr. Daniel Britling, Eunice Britling and Martin Longworth carrying the plots. So these four shorter works have not entirely convinced me of Ronald's reported genius as a mystery writer and crafty plotter, but the novel-length Six Were to Die is next on the list. Don't touch that dial and stay tuned.

No comments:

Post a Comment