The Secret Of High Eldersham by Miles Burton aka John Rhode

Secret-of-High-Eldersham-cover-RGBWelcome to High Eldersham, a picturesque and isolated village in East Anglia. Well, not welcome, exactly – they don’t like newcomers around here. Such as the new pub landlord, who, not too long after taking up the license, is found stabbed to death in his own pub.

Enter Detective Inspector Young, who soon forms a worrying theory about the activities in the village – surely such a thing wouldn’t be going on in this (well, that) day and age? So concerned is Young that he summons his old friend Desmond Merrion for a second opinion. Soon, however, Merrion falls for Mavis Owerton, a young woman of the village. But can anyone live in the village and not know the village secret? And given all the shenanigans going on, who actually killed the landlord?

A brief digression on Burton aka John Rhode first of all. I was curious as a) how the British Library managed to get in touch with the notoriously silent Rhode estate, b) why pick the books they picked and c) why publish them out of order? Well, I posed these questions to Rob Davies and the answers were a) they used the contact info obtained from Curtis Evans and had no problem at all getting a response – maybe “British Library” carries a bit of clout; b) Rob asked Martin for a recommendation of a book with a train in it and c) whoops, basically. So fingers crossed for more affordable Burton or Rhode titles in the future if these two sell well…

It’s odd – after a few Rhodes, I was coming to the conclusion that he tended to gravitate to a single plot structure. Death In The Tunnel certain follows it, and it’s not the strongest example of it. But as I’ve read more, I’ve seen much more variation. And this is one of the most varied of all – it’s pretty bonkers, to be honest. But in a very entertaining way…

Merrion is Burton’s series sleuth and this is his first appearance. It’s odd to read it after reading the later ones, as Merrion is almost an action hero here. Compared to the near-disinterested character from Early Morning Murder, it’s a completely different character. It’s a shame I haven’t tracked down another early Merrion tale as I’d be curious to see when the character changes – or if he’s just out of character in Early Morning Murder. I’ll let you know if I find out…

It’s an odd book, that’s for sure. It’s sort of a cross between Scooby Doo and Hot Fuzz, with an actual whodunit thrown in for good measure. As a mystery, it’s very odd. The grand “what’s going on” reveal is really odd – and massively over the top for what it’s designed to accomplish – but the actual murder plot, which really gets relegated to the background for a long time, is quite clever – although it’s probably best that it does, as it would be hard to give it much depth.

There’s a couple of lovely nods to the era it was written. Young at one point borrows “the village Ford” – I love the notion that the village has a single car that anyone could borrow. There’s also the use of the word “cop”, which I always assumed was an Americanism, but seems to have been in use over here back then.

So, weird, but a lot of fun, if decidedly not a standard book from Burton/Rhode. Well Worth A Look.

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22 comments

  1. It seems both you and Rich enjoyed this one more than me. I just couldn’t get in to its “Scooby doo” aspects as much as you guys were able to. Interested that you liked the puzzle aspect more than I did, considering you have more exacting standards in this department.

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    • Well, the puzzle part was very brief but it was fairly clued. Its main problem is that you don’t think about it due to the massive distraction of the “Secret” plot, which isn’t really a fair way of misdirecting the reader. Although the more I think about it, I think the choice of killer is rather clever for spoilerific reasons

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  2. I’ve read two Burton books from 1931 that immediately followed SECRET OF HIGH ELDERSHAM and Merrion acts just like any other amateur sleuth of the time. THE DEATH OF MR GANTLEY — which I think is pretty easy to find in the Penguin paperback over in your part of the world — is very much a fair play detective novel and was the second book written under the Burton pen name published after ELDERSHAM. The Merrion/Young books become more like puzzle mysteries and while thriller aspects still occur (gangsters up to no good, for example) the books tend to slowly turn into more action oriented versions of the Dr. Priestley books. If you can find THREE CORPSE TRICK read that one. It’s one of the best of the Miles Burton books I’ve read and one that I wasn’t able to fully figure out.

    “Pretty bonkers” and “Over the top” seem to be extreme descriptions to me. This kind of story was very popular at the time and Burton/Rhode was probably just capitalizing on a subgenre that would sell. Compared to the rest of what was being written and published at the time the strange and weird aspects of the story (which greatly appeal to me) are pretty tame. Sax Rohmer is way more bonkers than this and so were Edgar Wallace, Sydney Horler, Russell Thorndike, Carolyn Wells, and dozens of other thriller writers using “Scooby Doo” (to use your term) plot devices during the late 1920s and early 1930s.

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    • Before someone else chips in, I think there are a couple of books – The Menace On The Downs and The Three Crimes – before Gantley, which, by the way, has a grand total of no copies on Abebooks.

      And yes, bonkers is a relative term, but as I haven’t read any of the authors that you name, it seems to work for me. The notion that SPOILER SPOILERed an entire village and persuaded them to SPOILER just because he/she was SPOILERing SPOILERs comes across as pretty bonkers in my book.

      And I would point out, I still really enjoyed the book. Bonkers doesn’t equate to bad!

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    • Yup, if you thought this book was wild, there are plenty other wild ‘uns like it from the period. Though the specific theme in the book was pretty original.

      I praise Three Corpse Trick in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery. Lovely book, I actually diagrammed the plot threads (not in Masters!).

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      • Street certainly is imaginative. Take Death At Breakfast – the plot of the villain is utterly ridiculous and over the top (not uncommon in the books so far) but that just serves to make the plot more entertaining.

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  3. To be fair, Scooby Doo was just doing something which 1920s-30s writers were doing. That was the point of the show, I thought.

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  4. This felt a little like two plots in one book… I wonder if Miles Burton had intended just to have the big splashy plot be a slight distraction but then became enamoured of the storyline? In some ways it was pretty clever camouflage.

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  5. Just a general word on the reprints question: I’m glad someone some publisher was able to persuade the agency to allow repriting and I wish them luck with the others. I worked for years reading all the Street books, researching the author and writing the pages devoted to him in Masters and I want people to be able to read him. I always thought he could find an audience again among vintage mystery fans. I would have liked to have been involved with a reprint series for him, but those are the breaks. I have at least been able to work with the Connington and Punshon series.

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    • It’s also a shame that the British Library will probably only do a couple a year at best – so about 70 years for the whole canon – and the choice so far is interesting to say the least. Apparently Death In The Tunnel, which is a lesser work employing Street’s standard structure, was picked because the BL was looking for a book involving a train, and Secret Of High Eldersham followed – the out-of-order publication wasn’t deliberate but was a bit of an oversight, so I understand. I’m surprised they didn’t go for the more highly regarded titles – maybe next time they’ll ask you for the recommendations…

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  6. Obviously no one says “no” to the British Library. 😉 I’m glad someone has been able to get Street back in print in English. Others had tried and failed. I wrote a great deal about Street and his books in Masters of the “Humdrum” Mystery and have wanted for years to see him in print again.

    I think the review if Eldersham makes fair points. There is a good little puzzle there, though the thrills overtake it. I wonder whether it might be said in structure to have done similarity with Gaudy Night, though obviously the latter aims at Literature.

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