Of all the Golden Age Crime reissues that the British Library have recently brought out, The Secret of High Eldersham must be one of the strangest. I have been reading my way through many of these books, collecting them all, and this one wanders off from the point far more than any of the rest. It opens with a murder, the local police are soon baffled, and an unofficial expert is accordingly consulted. So far, so normal for these type of novels. I began to think that the author had miscalculated and would wrap up the narrative more quickly than the apparent length of this book would warrant. Maybe there would be a romance, I thought. Or many purple passages of prose about the countryside setting. Or even a theological excursion, as in one murder mystery I read recently. Having lived for a while in East Anglia I thought that it would be interesting to see how Burton dealt with local secrecy in 1930.
That’s where it all went a little strange. The whole village is in the grip of something so unusual that the author obviously had to hop off to his reference books (remember those pre internet days?) to do lots of research. I am not sure whether it was a good idea; by the time it had been related back to the situation in hand I had quite literally lost the plot. If this is “fast paced and crisply told ” as the back cover promises, well, I’m not at all convinced. A working knowledge of matters marine would have helped me; prolonged passages relating to boats, tides and stuff was a bit confusing to someone brought up in the landlocked midlands (and who has recently returned there). There was also violence, but I even got confused as to who was fighting who, and whose unconscious body was which.
This is an interesting read in many ways, though I am really not convinced by the whole research/narrative ratio, and I think that it was unnecessarily confusing overall. If you are new to this series of books, this is not one to start with as representing the usual high quality of writing. I can cope with solving the mystery before the end, or not really being satisfied as to the outcome of a book, but this was a tricky read. Having said that, I did finish it, and probably learnt something about the subject matter of the book, but I would have preferred the straightforward murder mystery of its time than this strange book.