Friday, 11 November 2016

Forgotten Book - Death of a Banker

Anthony Wynne had a knack of dreaming up excellent "impossible crime scenarios", as readers of his enjoyable British Library Crime Classic Murder of a Lady know. So I approached his 1934 novel Death of a Banker with high hopes, and found that the story opens brilliantly. We are presented with the central problem in the first chapter, during a conversation between the "Giant of Harley Street", Dr Eustace Hailey, and the Chief of the C.I.D., Colonel Wickham.

A banker called Hall takes part in a hunt in Northumberland. He is seen to fall from his horse in the middle of a grass park, in front of fourteen witnesses, and when they reach his body, they find that he has been stabbed to death. How could he possibly have been murdered? As the despairing Wickham says, it's "one of those new ideas in killing".

Duly tantalised,I read on. Before long, however, I began to fear that the superb opening would be as good as it got, and so, I'm sorry to say, it proved. Wynne, who was very interested in economics, had a lot to say about the way that bankers behave, and many of us would agree with his reservations about them. But, interested though I am in the impact of politics and economics on Golden Age fiction, the part played by international finance in the storyline soon becomes intensely tedious..

There are two distinct recurrent features in poor Golden Age mysteries. One is the presence of American gangsters - here, at least, Chicago gunmen are mercifully absent The other is the presence of political leaders from a fictitious European state on the brink of revolution, and here we have a prince whose position as head of state is threatened by those pesky Communists. I found the plot involving the prince tedious in the extreme, and I kept reading simply to learn the solution to the impossible murder. But even that was plucked out of thin air.

There are a few nice lines, such as: "Since Europe became the slave market of money-lenders, loyalty has almost completely disappeared as the basis of government", and it's clear that Wynne was keen to write about topical issues. But I don't think it works, and I doubt it worked even in 1934. Suffice to say, I felt this book was markedly inferior to Murder of a Lady.


J F Norris said...

Many of Wynne's books really are not worth anyone's time. I can count only three or four that I would recommend and I've read over a dozen, including most of his short stories. His lack of humor and the severe solemnity that pervades his books for me is the most damning failure of his work. For all his outrageous ideas about murder victims who manage to travel far from the site where they actually were first attacked, for all his ingenuity in dreaming up variations on the gimmick of the "twice killed corpse" his books are extremely dull. Apart from the first three books in which Hailey actually displays some personality his creation is one of the most colorless of all fictional detectives. It amazes me that he wrote so many books and managed to stay with the same publisher for almost three decades. His books apparently sold well in the US, as he was always advertised on the rear of the Lippincott DJs of all the mystery books they published, but I really don't think Wynne was ever very popular in his lifetime.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, John. Which are the three or four that you would recommend? (Not that any of them are easy to find nowadays...) Are they the first three in the series?

J F Norris said...

These are my favorites: The Mystery of the Ashes (for its sheer audacity), The Room with the Iron Shutters, The Red Lady (UK Title: The Holbein Mystery,), The White Arrow (UK title: The Silver Arrow), and some of the stories in Sinners Go Secretly.

Honorable mentions to The Fourth Finger (for having the distinction of being the only Wynne mystery with a sense of humor), and The Dagger.

Bill Pronzini liked The Case with the Gold Coins. I've not read that one yet.

Utter stinkers: The Blue Vesuvius, The Horseman of Death.

Martin Edwards said...

John, that's really helpful. Thanks. Next problem - trying to track them down!