John Bingham's fourth novel, The Paton Street Case, received rave reviews when it appeared in 1955. Julian Symons hailed it as a "brilliant tour de force" - high praise from a stern critic - while Time and Tide described it as "a superb detective story in the classical tradition". I enjoyed the book, but one thing to say right away is that to describe it as a detective story in the classical tradition strikes me as weirdly inappropriate. This is a police story in which the likeable detective makes various dreadful mistakes, more than once with fatal consequences. Although there is a pleasing twist, it's essentially a downbeat and disturbing story of post-war urban life, far removed from the world of the country house or the pretty village, to mention two milieux commonly associated with classic crime.
A fire at 127 Paton Street leads to the discovery of a dead body. Have the owners of the premises, a German-Jewish couple, something to hide? It soon emerges that Otto Steiner had reason to wish his unpleasant lodger ill, and although Inspector Morgan is sympathetic to Steiner in many ways, his treatment of Steiner proves disastrous.
At first, I thought this was going to be a relentlessly dismal story, and I didn't care over-much for the occasional bits of authorial intervention in the story as it unfolded. But I must say that as matters developed, and the plot complexities began to emerge, I found myself gripped by Bingham's blend of neat plotting and thoughtful characterisation.
I wouldn't go as far as Symons in praising this novel, but I did conclude that overall it was a very good example of the British crime story of the 1950s. It also casts considerable light on the lives and behaviours of fairly ordinary people caught up in extraordinary and distressing events. And it's also an intriguing social document. All in all, then, a book that is at times poignant and is certainly worth reading.