Measure for Murder by Clifford Witting – a clever and compelling murder mystery from 1941 republished by Galileo Publishers

Measure for Murder by Clifford Witting

This is a clever and compelling novel that is set in 1939 as War begins, was originally published in 1941 and was republished in 2021 by Galileo Publishers in Cambridge. I am so pleased it was! Several of Clifford Witting’s books have been reappearing recently, and I have been enjoying and reviewing them. This one has so much on offer: a wartime setting, a mysterious murder victim, a drama group in crisis, and lots of references to one of my favourite Shakespeare plays, “Measure for Measure”. Not that you need to know the play – it is not often produced – but it added to my enjoyment of this surprising and well written murder mystery with many elements. There is comedy of a gentle sort, a well- constructed plot and an impressive setting of a small theatre and a boarding house full of interesting characters. The characters also represent a good range of interwar classics, from the very observant narrator to the somewhat feckless assistant, the dramatic women and the helpful landlady. I found it a very engaging read and enjoyed its surprises and Witting’s skilful writing.

The Prologue to the novel is actually set in January 1940 when a careful cleaning lady, Mrs Mudge, discovers a body in the Little Theatre in Lulverton, a country town with the usual mixed community of business people, travellers, and others. For those who like to visualise the setting of a story, a diagram of the theatre is provided. More unusually, the body is not identified to the reader until some way into the novel. The narrative reverts to the story of Vaughan Tudor, who recounts how he comes to live in Lulverton as a guest or permanent resident in Mrs. Doubleday’s establishment while starting his own small business. He gives details of the other residents, and how the Lulverton Amateur Dramatic Society began among a group of friends. They are fortunate to obtain premises to meet and indeed put on performances to a small audience. Then follows an account of how they put on plays, and the personalities that must be pushed, placated and persuaded to assemble a suitable cast. The group enjoys some success, though has challenges to face which may be familiar to anyone who has experience of amateur drama. Meanwhile Tudor’s business prospers and he encounters an old school friend who needs a job and accommodation. Politically the world becomes darker, and as War is actually declared many of the characters begin to reassess their priorities.

It is worth noting that when this novel was first written and published the Second World War was continuing and nobody really knew what would happen in the longer term. I particularly enjoy books set at this time when the author is writing for an audience desperate for entertainment. I enjoyed the Shakespeare references and the element of commentary from the classical drama figures, which I thought added real depth to the story. I thought the characters were extremely well drawn, with the theme of romance very much of its time. The murder mystery is well set up, with many possible theories being suggested and a suitable list of potential suspects being lined up. Inspector Charlton, Witting’s usual investigator, is once more drawn into the case, with his trusty assistant Detective Sergeant Martin, and having read other Witting novels I was pleased to reacquaint myself with his thoughtful techniques. This is a novel which plays with the form and content of the classic murder mystery to great effect, and I recommend it as a strong read of detection and action in a well-drawn setting with excellent characters.

Midsummer Murder by Clifford Witting – an clever murder mystery from 1937 now reprinted

Midsummer Murder by Clifford Witting

I know this is not really a novel for early autumn judging by the title alone. It’s actually not about tropical settings or a heat wave – just long sunny days where many things can happen – and mysteries abound.

 This novel is in some senses an extraordinary achievement. It is a sort of locked area murder mystery when that area is in full public view. It is a novel first published in 1937, now republished by Galileo Publishers as they work through the novels of Clifford Witting and his recurring investigator, Detective Inspector Charlton. This is a stand-alone book in which the resourceful Police officer is tested in every way as he tries to solve a murder committed in the full sight of a market day crowd in the country town of Paulsfield, a fictional version of Petersfield in Hampshire. It manages to combine what is now a well-drawn picture of market town life in the 1930s with a Golden Age Mystery thriller featuring a well-established set of police officers in charge of a apparently motiveless murder investigation. It is a complex situation which develops after the first killing, but it is blended and grounded in town life with memorable characters including an officious Hall caretaker, a nervous shopkeeper with sisters, an ambitious photographer and a capable author.  I enjoyed it for the picture of life at the time as well as the mystery, which is memorable as it develops, and I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this reprinted novel.

The book opens with a market day scene. People are bustling around seeking bargains, and sellers of every variety and type are offering their wares from shops, stalls and all manner of structures. Apart from the many people intent on their own business in the square, there is a full compliment of animals being offered for sale, including a bull who are one minute to midday escapes, threatening bystanders and imperilling the stalls, organ grinders and the myriad of people nearby. In the background, drilling of the road has been contributing to the noise and confusion. In the middle of the square a solitary figure has been methodically cleaning a statue, ignoring the noise and distraction, until he falls, shot dead, in silence. As Charlton and his officers realise that a murder has taken place, closing the public and busy space becomes a priority so that no one leaves, but is soon becomes clear that it will be difficult, if not impossible to achieve.  Charlton and his men are left with the mystery of a man who seems to be an unlikely target, killed in full public view, by a single bullet from one of a certain number of vantage points.

One of the things that made this book stand out for me is the detailed investigations that Charlton manages to make as there are further attacks. He encounters an older lady who has an incredible filing system which gives precise details of most of the local residents. He is thus able to discover a great deal about the victim. He is given access to several of the buildings which overlook the square by a caretaker who has many of his own theories to present. Charlton is also able to consult a Captain Harmon who is an early ballistics expert. Witting devotes a lot of space to his investigations which he shares with Charlton, and I think it is a fascinating insight into the early methods adopted by police and others to identify weapons involved in crime.

This is a remarkable book for its calm treatment of multiple murders against the background of a small community. I enjoyed the characters and the details of life at the time as well as the somewhat perilous investigation undertaken by the solid character of Inspector Charlton. It provides a valuable insight into life in Britain in the mid-1930s as well as an unusual murder mystery, and as such is a valuable and fascinating reprint.

This review first appeared on last month

Murder in Blue by Clifford Witting – an enjoyable Golden Age of Detection Fiction novel reprinted

Murder in Blue

Murder in Blue by Clifford Witting

Sometimes some really good reads are picked up more or less by accident or on the strong recommendation of an authority, which is how I found this entertaining and well written book. It originally appeared in 1937 and has just been reprinted by Galileo Publishers in Cambridge, where it was recommended to me in Heffers bookshop. According to his daughter Diana Cummings’,  note in the front, this was his first book, and two others have been reprinted. On the evidence of this one, I have bought one other and am looking to get the third soon! It is thoughtfully yet naturally written in the narrative voice of John Rutherford, bookseller and library owner. Curious, attentive and inspired by a complex series of mysteries linked to the murder of a police officer, he has adventures and contemplates possible answers with the aid of George, assistant and avid crime reader. When Inspector Charlton becomes involved, they form an unofficial investigating team which is not without danger and benefits. This is a novel very much in the best traditions of the Golden Age Detection Fiction, and cleverly combines just the right amount of clues with red herrings, side issues and general background. Being written at the time, this book is full of life in the 1930s: bicycles, small local police forces, thoughtful pipes for the evening, variety shows and so on. My husband really enjoyed this book, not being a great reader of Golden Age novels, so I had to wait to read it, but it was well worth it. 

The book opens with the discovery, on a wet evening in the darkness, of a body. Not any body, but the corpse of a recently deceased policeman, with his head having met with a blunt instrument. After telling himself to “pull yourself together”, he decides to find help, as on a deserted country lane after dark there are unlikely to be any passers by. He uses the nearby bicycle for speed, and makes his way to an open local police station, where he knows Sergeant Martin. Once convinced that there is a real murder in the locality, he springs into action. This is a world of many men who know about death from the fairly recent “Great War”, but even they say “One can hardly associate such a violent death with a country lane in peaceful England”. Despite the almost crossword solver’s puzzle that emerges, there is real shock at the murder, and it is fair to say that Rutherford himself encounters some tricky situations as he strives to work out the timings, possibilities and alibis of potential killers within a relatively small community. Inspector Charlton is a skilful investigator willing to bend the rules to identify the guilty, but even he is bewildered by some of the leads he has to diligently follow. 

Without giving too much away, this is a clever book of murder and mystery in a small community setting. It is dominated by the men of the society, but they are shown with all their contradictions and confusions. I thoroughly recommend this little known author’s book, not least because the narrator is a bookseller, and look forward to discovering more of his work.