R.C. Woodthorpe is best known for his debut novel, The Public School Murder, but his Silence of a Purple Shirt (Death of a Purple Shirt in the U.S.), my Forgotten Book for today, seems to me to be a more enjoyable book. It was published in 1934 and featured Nicholas Slade, a novelist who appeared in one other novel before Woodthorpe abandoned him. A pity, because he and his confidential clerk Alfred Hicks make a pretty likeable Holmes and Watson duo.
The story features the murder of a political agitator, and a related child kidnapping, but the real interest of this book lies in its humour – which Dorothy L. Sayers lauded in a review. Woodthorpe pokes fun at the Purple Shirts, a Fascist group who want to “Make Britain Free”. I’d say he was ahead of many writers in recognising not only the absurdity but also the unpleasantness of the reactionary groups who became so formidable in the Depression era.
There are plenty of jokes, including a nice nod to Margery Allingham, whose husband Pip was once a pupil of Woodthorpe’s. before he abandoned teaching for writing. I enjoyed especially the civil servant who had written a single thriller, which sounds suspiciously like the author’s debut novel.
The early chapters sparkle, and the resolution of the mystery is pretty good. I did feel, though, that the middle section of the book sagged. Woodthorpe spends ages describing an island hotel and its occupants, and although the writing is amusing, this is not enough to disguise the skeletal nature of the plot – a recurrent failing in Woodthorpe’s work. He was a genuinely talented entertainer, but not much interested in weaving complex fair play whodunits. That said, he was too good a writer to have disappeared from sight. It would be interesting to know why he gave up writing after 1940. Perhaps he felt he'd done all he can. Possibly he might have changed direction instead. I'm certainly on the look-out for the rest of his books, hard to find though they are.