Friday, 29 April 2016

Forgotten Book - The Chislehurst Mystery

The Chislehurst Mystery is a rather obscure novel which E.L. Mann published in 1938. I had never heard of it until I came across a lovely copy in a dust jacket at a book fair. The price asked put it out of my reach, but I managed to borrow another copy, and I must say that I enjoyed it. It is a thriller rather than a detective story, written by a young school teacher, and it' offers a yarn full of youthful zest.

I've never visited Chislehurst, but apparently it boasts miles of subterranean caves. These form the starting point for the action. Our young hero - also a school teacher - is approached by another young chap, who has become fascinated by the mysterious underground activities of a group of chaps in the neighbourhood. It becomes clear that these people are Up To No Good, and our two heroes are soon joined by a plucky and very attractive young woman in an attempt to save the nation from the Lackland Party.

The Lackland Party is a crypto-Fascist organisation, and this plot element (and also an interest in archaeology) are evident in another book published in the same year, Stanley Casson's Murder by Burial. The details of the two stories are very different, and I'm quite sure that there's no question of plagiarism - what the coincidence reveals, as such coincidences often do, is that fear of Fascists masquerading as people devoted to "old England" was a widely shared concern at that time.

This is such a breezy story that I was more or less prepared to forgive the craziness of our heroes, who - for reasons never adequately explained - fail to tell the police what they have discovered. It rather serves one of them right when, as a result of his nosiness, he finds himself a prime suspect in a murder case. Yet for all the faults of youth that are evident in the writing, I found its energy appealing. As for E. L. Mann, his specialism was history, and he seems never really to have developed his interest in crime fiction. But his granddaughter, the history writer Sally Varlow, has said that she found his storytelling gifts a real influence upon her, and I can well believe it. There is something very likeable about this novel.


Jerry House said...

Another interesting review, Martin. Thanks. You and the other Fogotten Books contributors have given me enough suggestions to last much longer than I will on this earth.

Congratulations on your well-deserved Edgar!

J F Norris said...

Never heard of this writer, but I like the idea of the story.

And congratulations on your so well deserved Edgar Award for THE GOLDEN AGE OF MURDER which I have only just started (love every paragraph - chock full of fascinating tidbits on all those writers' lives) after having unburied it from a pile of books I just sorting through last weekend. If I lived over there I'd send you the traditional Norris gift of a bottle of wine.

Anonymous said...

Chislehurst caves were used as mass air raid shelters in WW2, being just south of London. There were no murders there as far I know, but they would surely be an excellent workplace for John Lawton's Inspector Troy or Anthony Horovitz's Insp Foyle. Or for some urban explorer of today to find a hidden corpse wrapped in a utility blanket or ARP greatcoat.