Saturday, June 24, 2017

Miles Burton, Death in the Tunnel

Miles Burton, Death In the Tunnel
British Library Crime Classics 2016
Reprint of 1936 Edition
© 2016 Estate of Cecil Street
ISBN 978-0-7123-5641-1

Miles Burton is one of the pseudonyms of Cecil John Charles Street; John Rhode is his other prominent authorial identity.  The books written as Miles Burton generally feature Inspector Henry Arnold and Desmond Merrion (an intelligence agent turned amateur sleuth).  In this book (the 12th of 14 books published as Burton between 1930 and 1936), Inspector Arnold is called  upon to investigate the death (suicide or murder) of a prominent, semi-retired financier, Sir Wilifred Saxonby.  He was shot on a train, in a fist-class compartment, as the train was passing through a 2-mile-long tunnel.

Among the oddities of the event:  Saxonby had paid a conductor to keep any other passengers ou of his compartment.  In addition, the train slowed almost to a stop (at the location of a ventilation shaft) because the engineer saw a flashing red light; before the train stopped, the light turned green…the oddity is that there were no workers, and no permanent signal light, in the tunnel. 

It seems a fairly straightforward case of suicide, but Arnold can find no reason why Saxonby would have killed himself.  As the investigation proceeds, he learns that the Saxonby had been the chairman of a private bank (now semi-retired), and that the other directors (his son, his daughter, and his former chief assistant, Mr. Torrance) were all out of London on the day of his death—at his urging.  And the former chief clerk of the bank appears to be acting strangely.  Arnold calls on his friend Merrion for advice and assistance.  And things become quite complicated.

I don’t think the book, in the end, works all that well.  It is murder, of course, but it such a complicated, contrived murder plot that any one of a dozen events could have kept the murder from being carried out.  For example, a tow-truck that features prominently, has apparently been driven by two of the conspirators, neither of whom seems to have a background that includes driving large, awkward trucks.  And this one is old—and not in great condition; they are lucky it didn’t break down.  Another example—the caretaker at Saxonby’s son’s estate receives a letter (apparently from Saxonby’s daughter) asking him to go to Norwich to buy some plants for the son’s estate—a trip that will keep him away for the entire day of the murder.  The letter arrives the day before the murder—what if it had been delayed?  Or what if the caretaker had been ill?

A third example…Saxonby has taken some actions that lead directly to the murder—but these actions would also have left him vulnerable to blackmail.  Fourth, the actions taken by Saxonby involve the opening of a bank account—at a different bank—in the amount of ₤50,000—about $2 million at today’s values—which is withdrawn through cashing 2 checks, each for ₤25,000.  First of all, it’s quite the bank that could cash two checks that large without notice (or question).  And that much cash would make a fairly large package (unless it was all in ₤100 notes—and then the bank would maintain a record of the serial numbers of the notes).

There are so many moving parts here that having everything go smoothly seems implausible, at least to me. 

I must also say that Arnold is not depicted as a particularly brilliant example of a Scotland Yard detective; all the clever bits are done by Merrion.

This is the third or fourth book by Street (Burton; Rhode) I’ve read, and it is by far the least successful.  According to the back cover copy on this edition, he wrote “approximately 140 detective novels” between 1925 and 1961—an average of 4 per year—and 44 in the 12 years from 1925 through 1936.  (As an contrast, Agatha Christie wrote 14—including collections of short stories—in her first 12 years as a published author—1920-1931).  He was clearly not putting a lot of thought into any individual book and, in this case, I think it shows.

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