A recurrent theme of my blog posts about books of the past has been the great work done by a variety of small presses in resurrecting hidden gems from long ago. One of the newer kids on the block in this respect is Oleander, which recently set up a fresh imprint, London Bound. I'm hoping to cover another of their titles in this series before long, but today I want to focus on a particularly fascinating author and novel.
The writer is Christopher St John Sprigg, and the book is Fatality in Fleet Street, first published in 1933. When I spoke about the Golden Age at St Hilda's recently, a lady came to speak to me afterwards and said that her husband was a great admirer of Sprigg, and had been presented by Sprigg's family with copies of all of his detective novels. Lucky chap. They are rarities, and of genuine interest for their period feel. An added bonus is that Sprigg was himself was such a remarkable man.
He was only in his mid-20s when he wrote this book. He became better known as Christopher Caudwell, a poet and Marxist who was killed at the achingly young age of 29 fighting in the Spanish Civil War. I do not claim that his detective novels are masterpieces, but those I have read are definitely enjoyable. This one opens with an argument between a politician and a newspaper owner. Very topical, as I'm sure my British readers will agree!
The newspaper magnate, Lord Carpenter, is using his influence to stoke up anti-Russian feeling, despite knowing that war is bound to ensue. The Premier, Claude Sanger,is desperate to stop him. There's an echo here of Stanley Baldwin's battles with the Press, although Sprigg carefully sets his story in the near-future: Needless to say, Carpenter is murdered within hours. Could the Prime Minister be guilty? Or was it one of the many people at the newspaper who had good cause to hate Carpenter? Or even his betrayed wife?
It must be said that the story has too many characters, but even so I found it fairly easy to figure out the culprit early on (though the precise means was not clear to me). This didn't matter, because Sprigg compensates for a certain amount of clutter in his narrative with some very engaging scenes and several good lines. When you think of his youth, this book is a notable achievement and absolutely fascinating as a period piece. I'm delighted that this London Bound issue has enabled me to read it at last. Recommended.