Friday, 5 July 2013

Forgotten Book - Death at Broadcasting House

My Forgotten Book for today, Death at Broadcasting House (known as London Calling in the US) was a joint effort. The authors were two men who worked for the BBC, Val Gielgud, brother of John, and Eric Maschwitz, who used the pen-name Holt Marvell. Of the two, Gielgud was the great enthusiast for the genre. He was a good friend of Dorothy L. Sayers and John Dickson Carr, and ultimately earned election to the Detection Club. This early effort, however, is perhaps his most famous.

And that is because of the use of Broadcasting House as a backdrop for a pretty ingenious murder, when an actor is killed in front of an open microphone when . The setting is described in great detail, making the novel a wonderful period piece as far as a modern reader is concerned. No fewer than three floor plans are provided, and they are quite useful for anyone who wants to take a practical approach to sleuthing, and beat the likeable Inspector Spears to the solution.

I didn't find the murder mystery deeply engrossing, but the portrayal of life in and around the BBC at that time was absolutely fascinating. The plot, with all its contrivances, I'd rate as functional, but there is a great appeal in getting the "feel" of somewhere interesting, and the BBC under the legendary Lord Reith was certainly that.

Gielgud in particular was a capable writer, and it's a shame that his crime novels are now overlooked. He wrote five with Marvell/Maschwitz, concluding in 1940 with The First Television Murder, which I haven't read, but where presumably the clue is in the title. Later, he wrote solo, and his career lasted until the mid 70s. In addition to his long and successful career at the BBC, he also found time to get married five times. A busy man.


Anonymous said...

Martin, many thanks for writing this blogpost about Death At Broadcasting House, which I've just read and enjoyed. I loved the period detail (then contemporary, of course!), and I was pretty impressed by the plot too because I actually got the identity of the murderer wrong, having been fooled by a red herring which I spent far too long smugly patting myself on the back for having spotted, thinking it was a genuine clue.

The copy of the book I read (at the British Library) was a "Cherry Tree" edition and didn't have illustrations of any kind, but fortunately the floor plans for Broadcasting House as it was in the 1930s are lovingly preserved at -- and they're a great help in visualising the scene of the crime.

By the way, I think there's a typo in one of the sentences in your blogpost: "when an actor is killed in front of an open microphone when" (sic).

Thanks for the blog and for all the invaluable work you do for classic crime fiction and especially the British Library series.

Martin Edwards said...

Great to hear from you, ahopeful, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Martin. I've just discovered something rather curious about the book Death At Broadcasting House -- it seems to have been serialised in a slightly different form in an Australian newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald, possibly before it was published in the UK:

Martin Edwards said...


Anonymous said...

Indeed! Here's a (rather ungainly) PDF of all the chapters from the serialised edition:

Anonymous said...

Sorry for all the messages, but that PDF of Death At Broadcasting House was full of errors. There's a better one here:

Btw, I've now read Gielgud and Marvell's The First Television Murder: it isn't quite as compelling as Death At Broadcasting House, but it does have some good contemporary detail on life at Alexandra Palace, at a time when the BBC's TV department was based there.

Martin Edwards said...

Much appreciated! Happily, I have a copy of that book, which I have yet to read. Based on your recommendation I'll be happy to life it up the TBR list.