“Aunt is a little difficult right now. It’s almost as if she thinks I had murdered people.”
When Scotland Yard receives a letter warning of an impending murder, it seems like a prank. Still, Inspector Humphrey Bull drops by Caithness Road just to be sure. He is shocked to learn that bank clerk Lawrence Sprague has just died of tetanus, despite not having a mark on him that could have caused such an infection. Lawrence’s two lovely sisters are inconsolable—especially since their father died mysteriously a short time before. Regardless of his attraction to Margaret Sprague, Inspector Bull can’t shake the feeling that something strange is happening in Hammersmith.
Luckily, the inspector has a secret weapon. His shy, rabbity landlord Evan Pinkerton has a gift for seeing into the dark hearts of men, all without leaving his drab suburban boarding house.
The Hammersmith Murders is a nice, cozy book to wrap yourself up in against the winter. Inspector Bull and Mr. Pinkerton are appealingly modest protagonists who move in very ordinary circles. Mr. Pinkerton especially lacks the ego that often characterizes amateur detectives. He is dominated by his “always-dissatisfied” wife, scraping along in genteel poverty while yearning for beauty and romance. The only bright spots in his life are a monthly trip to the cinema and the rare occasions when his lodger confides in him about a difficult case.
Life held no greater joy for the gray little Welshman than listening to the tales of burglary, swindling, or violent crime that made up Humphrey Bull’s daily affairs. It was true that the inspector had, of course, never once taken him along on one of his cases. But he had helped sometimes. Knowing none but ordinary, good people, he could imagine depths of wickedness that Bull shuddered at the thought of.
His idol Inspector Bull is a gentle giant who collects newspaper clippings and china figurines. (He’s so unassuming that he rarely bothers to identify himself as a Scotland Yard officer, which means he is often sent packing by witnesses who think he’s just a nosy bystander.) Bull is solidly middle class and knows this demographic inside out.
He knew those interiors far too well not to know that they were full of hopes for tomorrow, sorrow for yesterday, and the tragic endings of happy beginnings. A dumb pity moved him when he thought of them, realized how helpless they were, those people. Desire what they might, their lives were bound by birth and death, on the middle road of bare existence. They could never get very far away from it. They were trapped behind gray brick facades, and they didn’t know it.
These people lived unknown until something burst, somewhere behind the gray brick walls. Then the door flew open, for the world to see that life flamed passionately, even there, and people (not Inspector Bull) shook their heads and wondered.
This expertise leads him to suspect the Spragues when he realizes that there is evidence of more money in the house than one might expect from a family of secretaries and clerks. Lawrence Sprague owned four pairs of shoes, for instance, and there are valuable antiques on display that a family coming down in the world would have sold long ago.
When Inspector Bull learns that a doctor’s bag containing a tetanus sample was stolen from outside the workplace of one of the Spragues, he is faced with a delicate romantic dilemma. It seems that there are only four suspects: his beloved Margaret, her sister Beatrice, their aunt, or their scapegrace cousin Eric. That is, unless the case is more complicated than it first appears. And who sent that anonymous letter, anyway? Fortunately, Mr. Pinkerton is on the case.
The Hammersmith Murders is always diverting, but with such a small cast, it’s easy to spot the suspicious characters. At the same time, the solution depends entirely on information the reader does not possess, which makes it impossible to prove those suspicions until the summing-up. Although Inspector Bull and Mr. Pinkerton are delightful, there is not as much interplay between them as one would hope. They mostly go their own ways before finally getting there together in the end.
David Frome is one of several pseudonyms adopted by author Zenith Brown, who is better known for her writings as Leslie Ford. The Hammersmith Murders was named one of the Queen-Haycraft Cornerstone titles due to its status as the first in the Mr. Pinkerton series. Indeed, as pleasurable as it is, its greatest distinction is as a harbinger of good things to come for these endearing sleuths.
The Hammersmith Murders is out of print and most easily available in a cheap but questionable ebook edition.