Friday, 30 May 2014

Forgotten Book - The Shadow on the Downs

The Shadow on the Downs, my Forgotten Book for today, is the second novel that R.C. Woodthorpe wrote in quick succession about an acerbic retired schoolteacher called Miss Perks It first came out in 1935, although another four years passed before this fairly obscure yet very interesting writer produced another mystery. I'd rate it as one of his best, and it's a pity that it marked Miss Perks' swan song.

The setting is a village on the edge of the Sussex Downs, close to a resort called Helmstone (I presume this is based on Brighton). The peaceful rural life of the villagers is about to be disturbed by the construction of a motor race track. A councillor who supports the scheme is found dead in the porch of a church, and Miss Perks, who is staying with her nephew, becomes intrigued.

As always with Woodthorpe, the style is discursive. His main interest is in social comedy, and his portrayal of an intellectual tramp and a young man who wants to write detective fiction allow plenty of scope for humour that is pretty well done. He's also unsparing of corruption in local government and greedy enterpreneurs. Miss Perks' acerbic and often rude manner conceal a fierce intelligence and an unexpected human sympathy. However, she fails to avert one tragedy which is of a kind that one seldom encounters in detective novels of the period and which demonstrates that Woodthorpe's interests extended well beyond the puzzle of whodunit.

In fact, the detective work here is pretty good, better than you sometimes find with this author. Miss Perks does justice as she sees fit - rather as Holmes, Poirot and Roger Sheringham used to do. Despite all the digressions (I imagine Agatha Christie, whose books at the time were very tightly structured, must have despaired of Woodthorpe, though Dorothy L. Sayers was a huge fan) it's a novel I really enjoyed reading, and I hope some enterprising publisher will make it available again to a new set of readers.


Kacper said...

That does sound very interesting!

I first encountered Miss Perks in Colleen Barnett's Mystery Women compendium, which - if anyone haven't heard of it - is an admirable compilation of short bios and bibliographies of major female characters in English-language crime fiction. Barnett wrote that Miss Perks "admired Adolf Hitler," which did rather turn me off the character for obvious reasons, though.

CountryCrime said...

Thank you, that's given me a new book to hunt for this summer! I like the sound of Miss Perks (apart from the "admired Adolf Hitler" element pointed out above). I'm always a bit wary of long-forgotten authors, and very grateful to you for road-testing so many of them.

Martin Edwards said...

Yes, Kacper, I think RCW went too far in his witty attempt to make her seem different from Miss Marple!

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Country Crime, this is definitely worth a look, I think. RCW was very anti-Fascist, and the Hitler reference was, I think, a joke that has not stood the test of time.