Friday, 1 July 2016

Forgotten Book - Murderer at Large

Murderer at Large, by Donald Landels Henderson, was published in 1936,when the author was in his very early thirties. It's an extremely obscure book, and I was unaware of it until I began correspondng with Paul Harding, who has undertaken invaluable research into Henderson's work. Henderson is today remembered, if at all, for two later books, Goodbye to Murder and Mr Bowling Buys a Newspaper, which I reviewed a while back.

Murderer at Large is an early book by a relatively inexperienced novelist, but its central concerns prefigure those addressed in the later,more renowned books,and I found it a startlingly powerful piece of work. There are touches of the irony and black humour that we associate with Francis Iles and his followers,and the seedy London atmosphere is not dissimilar from that of a later, much more widely acclaimed novel, Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square.

Erik Farmer is a rather unpleasant young man, son of a villainous father, and the story opens with his employer about to confront him about a series of embezzlements. Undeservedly, Erik manages to get away with his crime, and flees to London with his ill-gotten gains. A more accomplished crook quickly relieves him of them, and Erik faces destitution. But his luck turns, and he finds a way to get back on his feet financially. Soon, however, he finds himself tempted to resort to the ultimate crime in order to preserve his lifestyle. Having committed one murder, he quickly finds that it becomes a habit.

I much admired the skill with which Henderson kept me interested in the fate of someone as loathsome as Erik, who flirts with one calamity after another. There are passages that are truly suspenseful, and the pace is maintained from start to finish. Henderson wrote this book in a hurry when he, like Erik, was impoverished, and in his unpublished autobiography, he mentions that he drew on the case of William Palmer (although the details of the plot are very different) in creating Erik. I think this book deserves to be much better known.

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