London 1938 and war is brewing with Russia. It’s brewing primarily due to the agenda of Lord Carpenter, proprietor of the leading newspaper The Mercury, a man determined to bring forward what he sees as an inevitable conflict. As he prepares to publish his coup de grace, a lead story that will make that conflict unavoidable, he locks his employees in the building so that his paper can publish an exclusive in the late edition without his competitors scooping him. And then, as so many future murder victims do in these novels, he isolates himself in his quarters with orders not to be disturbed. Guess what happens to him? He really shouldn’t have kept that extremely sharp dagger on display on his wall…
Fatality In Fleet Street was first published in 1933, the second of six novels by Christopher St John Sprigg, and has for a long time been incredibly hard to find. No longer, as Oleander Press has published it as the third in their London Bound series. But maybe it was lost for a reason? Let’s see…
There are a couple of things that need pointing out about this book. First of all, it’s set in the future. Five years ahead of when it was written, it’s not a million miles away with its prediction that England might again be on the verge of war. Wrong country, and with Carpenter’s murder, the war doesn’t happen, but good guess, nonetheless. The future element is something that I think is unique to this book from the time, which gives the author a free hand to play around with the national history. With some suspicious communists stirring the plot as well, Sprigg gets a chance to voice some political ideas, but it never feels like it’s getting the way of the plot.
The other thing I can’t go into but part of the resolution of the plot is something else that I’ve never seen in the solution to a murder case. Obviously I’m not saying what it is, and, to be honest, it’s rather contrived – would SPOILER really have not have noticed that SPOILER? Of course not, but this is the Golden Age after all. Oh, and how did no-one notice SPOILER entering the building?
This is a novel that requires your full attention, as there are little twists all over the place. There are times when the scene shifts very rapidly or a character suddenly appears seemingly out of nowhere. At the moment I’m a bit swamped with work and having to read in small chunks and I found myself having to turn back a few pages to work out what I’d missed. Let’s make it clear, that’s my fault and not the book’s at all.
There are some flaws. Our sleuth, Charles Venables, the Mercury’s crime reporter is rather irritating – he has a habit of claiming to know what’s going on when in fact he’s just trying to get a reaction out of someone, for example. I didn’t warm to the character at all, which doesn’t help. He’s been compared to Lord Peter Wimsey in other reviews, but I’m not a massive fan of him either. So again, maybe that’s me. One of the funniest bits is the Chinese character who isn’t supposed to be a caricature – he makes a point of this himself by putting on a “velly solly” accent – but then spends his entire time speaking in Confucius-style homilies.
So, not perfect, but definitely worth the reissue and well worth a look to see what we’ve been missing out on for the last eighty-odd years. Recommended.