I've been musing recently on the impact that the First World War had on detective fiction, and among other things this led me to read The Tin Tree by James Quince, a book that's been on my TBR pile for a while now. Quince's pen-name masked the identity of J.R. Spittall, who signed my copy; he was a clergyman, and his career as a crime writer was quite brief, extending to a mere three novels.
The Tin Tree was the first, and it's a curious book. The opening scenes capture, very effectively in my opinion, the grim reality of soldiering during the First World War, as well as the eerie foggy environment surrounding the eponymous tin tree. The tree, built by the French army, was an observation post, with a ladder inside its trunk, and a platform "commanding an excellent view of the German lines".
The narrator of the story rejoices in the name of Roger Budockshed, although he's nicknamed, equally improbably, Secco - after Seccotine, which apparently is a brand of refined liquid fish glue. He is puzzled by a gunner called Rachelson, who is something of a mystery man. Eventually Rachelson confides in him, explaining that his real name is Montaubon, and that he's begun a new life after going on the run, following a murder in which he was the prime suspect.
It's an interesting set-up, but the story meanders quite a lot after that before reaching a twisty and pleasing climax that anticipates (in a sense) the plot-line of one of Agatha Christie's radio plays; both Quince's story and Christie's are based on the same classic precedent. The fact that the story sags in the middle is the mark of an inexperienced novelist, but Quince was a capable writer, and there is enough here to make it worth persevering, despite the longeurs.