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.