Whistle Up the Devil is the only novel by Derek Smith that was 'traditionally published' during his lifetime. He was a devotee of locked room mysteries, and there's a good deal of welcome information about him in an excellent omnibus of his work that Locked Room International published a while back, and which includes Whistle Up the Devil as well as two other novels. I'm lucky enough to possess an original first edition, dating from 1953, which Smith inscribed to that great locked room mystery expert Bob Adey: 'For one "locked room" enthusiast from another'. But I have to confess that I've only recently got round to reading it.
Before I did so, I checked out various online reviews of the novel. They wax lyrical about the cleverness of the plot, which includes not just one but two ingenious killings in a sealed environment. So the reputation of this once highly obscure and almost unobtainable book has worn very well. And I can see why. Not only are there some very entertaining references to the locked room mystery form in the early pages, the story zings along nicely to the end.
It's fair to say that Smith's inexperience as a novelist and limitations as a prose stylist are evident. I lost count of the number of times that one character is described as 'an old rogue', and there are passages where the viewpoint shifts from one person to another in a rather clumsy way. First and foremost, the book is a vehicle for two crafty and very hard to fathom techniques for killing someone in a locked room. The characterisation is perfunctory, and the Great Detective, young Algy Lawrence, remains two-dimensional despite his yearning for romance.
But there are ample compensations. Above all, I love the idea of a mysterious secret being passed on from one generation of the seemingly cursed Querrin family to another in 'the Room in the Passage'. This thread of the story is a highlight, but there's no denying the ingenuity of the way the crimes are committed, while Smith offers a rather neat piece of misdirection about the culprit's identity before the elaborate truth is finally revealed. Of course, it's exceptionally far-fetched, but it's also fun.