Friday, 12 December 2014

Forgotten Book - Who Was Old Willy?

Today's forgotten book is Who Was Old Willy? Ah, they don't come up with titles like that any more! The author was Milward Kennedy, and the book came out in 1940. It's possibly Kennedy's least known mystery story, and an unusual feature is that it is clearly aimed at young readers. But it's short and snappy and I found it rather quaint and appealing.

Kennedy explains that the original concept was that the story would give rise to a competition for young detectives. The question they had to answer was, indeed, about the identity of the eponymous Old Willy. The competition was a joint effort, involving The Sunday Times (for which Kennedy had been a crime reviewer), the publishers and the Junior Book Club. The newspaper was planning to hold a Book Fair, but "Hitler interfered with our plans", as Kennedy put it. The Book Fair was postponed, and so was publication of the book. The competition never happened.

But the book offers a "challenge to the reader" of essentially the same type as so many Ellery Queen novels, as well as others by the likes of Rupert Penny and Anthony Berkeley, and Kennedy is generous enough to offer a hint to would-be sleuths to help them to figure things out. It's a game, then, and one that is pleasantly contrived.

Our hero is a young boy called Harry, who befriends a mysterious and eccentric old codger, who has shut himself off from the outside world and secluded himself in a house called Woodsomes. In due course, Harry finds Willy's dead body, but this isn't a murder story. The mystery is one of identity, because it turns out that Willy was not only rich, but has left an intriguing will. Kennedy supplies several clues, and manages to strike the right note for a young readership in constructing his story. But timing is important in so many areas of life, and the unlucky timing of this book's appearance meant that it made no lasting impression. I've never seen any discussion of it anywhere, but the first time I came across a copy for sale, I snapped it up, and I'm glad I did so. I think it supplies a delightful reminder of Kennedy's talent..


Unknown said...

Oh wow, what a book! I wish it could be made available online somewhere. Perhaps it is?

Martin Edwards said...

I'm not aware of it, Clarissa, sad to say. But you never know, all sorts of rare books are becoming available again, so fingers crossed this is among them.

Unknown said...

I know there are a few old, rare short stories that have been made available on line. One of my favorite short stories is called "The Nine Mile Walk". Have you heard of it?

Martin Edwards said...

By Harry Kemelman? Yes, a real classic. And you might be interested to know that it was used as part of a students' lecture at Oxford recently - to show, I think, the importance of clear thinking.