Sometimes an old book is a lovely thing to have, even if its contents are less than scintillating. That isn't a view I've always held. At one time, for me, the story was always the thing. But in the last fifteen years or so, I've enjoyed collecting old crime novels, especially if they have an interesting signature or inscription. And I was fortunate to be able to acquire from the estate of a great collector and crime fan, Bob Adey, a number of terrific books.
One of them is Printer's Devil, by Clemence Dane and Helen Simpson. It's a scarce novel, by two founder members of the Detection Club who were undoubtedly skilful writers, first published in 1930. The copy which I bought from Bob's estate is still in its jacket, and has been signed by Helen Simpson. A very nice thing to have. The next question: is the story any good?
This was a follow-up to Enter Sir John, featuring Sir John Samaurez, which was filmed by Hitchcock as Murder! Samaurez also plays a part in this story, but in a very minor role. The book clearly shows the authors' shared ambition to raise the literary standard of the crime novel, focusing on people as well as plot. And according to the jacket blurb, "right to the last page readers will be undecided whether they have enjoyed a first-rate comedy or a breath-taking thriller, for both are to be found in this story".
I'm sorry to say, however, that I wasn't undecided, because I didn't find it remotely breath-taking or thrilling. The premise of the story is interesting and unusual: a pioneering woman publisher is presented with a manuscript by her star author. He's written something scandalous, full of revelations about people's secrets. The publisher, a decent woman, is deeply concerned about the implications of the book, and soon she is found dead. A coroner's jury brings in a verdict of misadventure? But could it in truth have been a case of murder?
The trouble is that there is not much mystery about it all, and the "crime" element of the book could have been put across in a short story, where it would have worked well. Because it's smothered by dated humour, and a romance that I found extremely tedious (it's "ridiculous, charming", according to the blurb", but the charm was lost on me) I wasn't impressed. The fact the book is well-written isn't adequate compensation for the fact that it's not terribly interesting to a modern reader. What we have here, I think, is an experiment which fails because the authors strike the wrong balance between people and plot. In that respect, you might say that Printer's Devil makes Gaudy Night look like And Then There Were None. But I'm still glad to have Bob's copy.