“What on earth or in hell are we up against?”
High Eldersham looks like an ordinary English village. The only unusual thing about it is the townspeople’s hostility to strangers, which Samuel Whitehead experiences firsthand when he takes over management of the Rose and Crown pub.
To everyone’s surprise, the retired policeman wins over his new neighbors…at least, until he’s stabbed to death in his own pub. Something devilish is going on in this seemingly tranquil village, and some residents of High Eldersham would do anything to keep their secret.
The village with a secret is always an excellent setup, and on that front The Secret of High Eldersham does not disappoint. In fact, the case involves more than one secret, and bizarre ones at that. However, aside from the startling nature of the secrets, this is a fairly basic thriller. While an improvement over Miles Burton’s other 1930 novel, The Hardway Diamonds, The Secret of High Eldersham is hiding a too-simple mystery beneath its spooky trappings.
The book’s biggest drawback is the perfunctory nature of the murder mystery. After a wonderfully atmospheric scene in which the sweetly naïve village constable discovers Whitehead’s body, detectives Desmond Merrion and Inspector Young become distracted by other matters. The two investigators seem to have tacitly decided that if they can solve these other, more interesting, questions, the murder might somehow just resolve itself.
This case, which had seemed so simple when it had first been described to him, seemed now in his imagination to be wrapped in sinister mystery. The Inspector was peculiarly sensitive to his environment, and here, in this remote spot, he felt himself surrounded by impalpable forces beyond his power to combat. It was as though the atmosphere of High Eldersham, so inimical to strangers, had already begun to influence him. There was undoubtedly something queer about the place, upon this everybody seemed to be agreed. But the theory he had for a moment formed to account for this queerness was so impossible, so utterly fanciful, that to entertain it was to doubt his own sanity.
The emphasis on thrills over detection wouldn’t be such an issue except that Merrion and Young catch on to one of the secrets almost immediately, and the others can be seen coming from a long way off. There’s entertainment value in the sheer goofiness of the plot, but not many surprises.
This is the debut of Desmond Merrion, whose character is sketched in fairly lightly. All we learn about Merrion is that he’s a war veteran who lives very comfortably with his valet Newport and occasionally likes to pass the time by solving a murder. Merrion is pleasant enough, though there’s nothing to distinguish him from countless other gentleman sleuths. He falls instantly in love with Mavis Owerton, the squire’s daughter, even though all he knows about her is that she loves speedboats. (At one point Merrion, staking out a suspicious stretch of river, yearns to be near her fast motor. “What the devil did one do in such circumstances? Ask the girl to marry one? It seemed to be the natural thing, somehow. But how, when, and where? Was he to lie in this confounded river until she came past in that speed-boat of hers, and then bawl the question at her?”)
His sidekick, Inspector Young, is a complete nonentity who makes a bad impression early on by stealing evidence from a suspect’s home. Still, I don’t envy him having to explain to the accounts payable department at Scotland Yard why he spent weeks hanging around a country pub waiting for a full moon.
The Secret of High Eldersham is packed with eerie scenes, including several midnight stakeouts that build to moments of quiet horror. Yet, for the all insistence on High Eldersham’s unique qualities, the village itself remains strangely out of focus. It doesn’t seem like a real place. This dilutes the impact of the central secret, which depends on the contrast between a seemingly ordinary town and the dark secret that it hides. The story is at its best when it leans into that contrast and gives free reign to its own loony nature.
I think this novel started out well and I enjoyed the humorous characterisation of Constable Viney who initially finds Whitehead’s body, as he is not very brave or experienced in police work. But due to the distinct lack of clues surrounding the murder the story does not progress well. It relies more on sinister and peculiar events surrounding the murder, which means that the investigation lacks direction and rather meanders. This affected the pace for me. Moreover, the thriller elements which crop up in the story weren’t successfully done in my opinion as firstly it led to some very trite moments in regards to Merrion and Mavis and it also meant that the mystery surrounding the case doesn’t stay that mysterious.
It’s an odd book, that’s for sure. It’s sort of a cross between Scooby Doo and Hot Fuzz, with an actual whodunit thrown in for good measure. As a mystery, it’s very odd. The grand “what’s going on” reveal is really odd – and massively over the top for what it’s designed to accomplish – but the actual murder plot, which really gets relegated to the background for a long time, is quite clever – although it’s probably best that it does, as it would be hard to give it much depth.
This is an interesting read in many ways, though I am really not convinced by the whole research/narrative ratio, and I think that it was unnecessarily confusing overall. If you are new to this series of books, this is not one to start with as representing the usual high quality of writing. I can cope with solving the mystery before the end, or not really being satisfied as to the outcome of a book, but this was a tricky read. Having said that, I did finish it, and probably learnt something about the subject matter of the book, but I would have preferred the straightforward murder mystery of its time than this strange book.
The Secret of High Eldersham is available in paperback and ebook formats from Poisoned Pen Press/British Library Crime Classics.