“Guilty knowledge is something that human beings cannot successfully cope with, and the more intelligent they are, the more it betrays them.”
The sun is shining on this August bank holiday. Mr. Pinkerton is surrounded by happy crowds. He should be happy himself, but he can’t help worrying about a foolish wager he made with his friend Inspector Bull. The Inspector is certain Scotland Yard could never mistake a murder for natural death. Mr. Pinkerton suspects otherwise. Now he is near the end of the betting period, however, without a single case of murder to show for himself.
The last thing Mr. Pinkerton expects is for a murder case to sit down right beside him on a park bench, but that is just what happens. Old Mrs. Ripley is dying. Local gossips suspect poison. Mr. Pinkerton isn’t sure what to think, but he knows one thing for sure: unless he discovers the truth, innocent lives will be destroyed.
Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard is an amusing light mystery, revealing dark secrets hidden behind closed doors. It takes place in Richmond which, in spite of its proximity to London, is portrayed as a bucolic small town, where everyone knows everything about everyone else…until murder shows just how little they really know.
The story opens with a vivid portrait of the bank holiday festivities, with Mr. Pinkerton feeling lonely amidst the crowd.
Mr. Pinkerton stood in the middle of the terrace, looking wretchedly down on the bright holiday crowd. It seemed to him that some venomous foul thing was waiting above them, poised, ready to strike and blot out all the laughter and color and innocence…and it seemed to him that it was up to him to stop it.
Despite his comic eccentricities, Mr. Pinkerton is at times a poignant character, leading a small and isolated life. Ironically, it takes the suspicion of murder to make him feel he has a place within this happy throng.
A family poisoning is an intimate crime, so the investigation focuses on Mrs. Ripley’s nearest, who are not necessarily her dearest. A miserly chronic “invalid,” Mrs. Ripley used her imaginary ailments and her money to control her three children, threatening to cut them off financially if they marry. “The people who stood to gain the most by Mrs. Ripley’s death each needed money,” says Inspector Bull. “They each needed freedom.”
Evelyn is the dutiful daughter who prepares all of her mother’s food. She is in love with (but unable to marry) Portus Ladysmith, vicar of a slum church that always needs money. Charlotte actually did elope, with tragic results. Now a penniless widow, she has only recently started reconciling with her mother—by sending her a gift of food. Hugh is in love with Linda, the girl next door, but will not risk his mother’s wrath by marrying her. As a result, Linda is now engaged to Monty Paget, “pots of money and no brains. Delightful fellow, complete jackass.” Monty says things like, “Oh, I say, Inspector! You’re not tryin’ to say we put arsenic in the cocktails? Oh, I say, that is jolly!”
Mr. Pinkerton manages to track down this family on the basis of his overheard conversation. He warns her physician, Dr. Freebody, that his patient may be in danger. Unfortunately, it is already too late. Mrs. Ripley dies that very day, and Mr. Pinkerton’s best friend, Inspector Bull, is on the case.
There have been some big changes in the lives of these characters since their first appearance in The Hammersmith Murders. Inspector Bull, who was once the star boarder in the Pinkertons’ rooming house, is now married and living in a home of his own, though he and his former landlord remain close. Mr. Pinkerton still lives in the big house in Golders Green, but under very different terms. His emotionally abusive wife has died, leaving Mr. Pinkerton a small fortune that she had secretly stashed away over the years.
The shy and self-effacing Mr. Pinkerton still hardly knows what to do with his new freedom. After so many years of harsh treatment, he finds it difficult to spend a few shillings on the little luxuries that mean so much to him without imagining some kind of reprisal from his wife. The late Mrs. Pinkerton remains very much on her husband’s mind, controlling his life from beyond the grave. Mr. Pinkerton’s attempts to shake off the effects of his oppressive marriage, as well as his own natural anxieties, can be rather sad. He is afraid of nearly everything, castigating himself for spending sixpence on an ice and panicking as he tries to decide where to sit in a large tearoom. Mr. Pinkerton can only forget his inhibitions when he is investigating a case. He will do anything, suffer any affront to his dignity, in pursuit of a suspect. As silly as his adventures can be, they are important for his emotional development.
Here, he is thrilled to be asked to join the official investigation for the first time; his other efforts have all been undertaken purely on his own. All this ends up meaning, however, is that Mr. Pinkerton gets to be in the room when some of the suspects are questioned. He is too self-conscious to do much else. The book is therefore split into two halves: first, Mr. Pinkerton’s mildly zany amateur sleuthing, then Inspector Bull and the vast machinery of Scotland Yard take over.
I will admit to finding Mr. Pinkerton’s inquiries more entertaining than Inspector Bull’s, but both suffer from the same problem—they are so focused on a particular suspect that the investigation becomes lopsided. Most of the story deals with this single suspect, only to sort of cram in the others quickly near the end. Though the culprit is not too surprising, the denouement is expertly done. The pleasures of the book come less from the mystery itself than from the details of ordinary life and striking characters, like the Ripleys’ neighbor Mrs. Coburn-Smith, whose eyes “contracted wickedly, like an old parrot’s preparing to swear dreadfully in front of the parson.”
Overall, Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard is a droll, easygoing detective story. Like the endearing Mr. Pinkerton himself, the book has modest ambitions and achieves them all, providing a perceptive, humorous look at life and death among the middle class.
I enjoy whodunits and this is a pretty good one even if the reasoning in the end is a bit faulty.
Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard (also published as Arsenic in Richmond) is out of print, with a few used copies available. It was reprinted as part of the omnibus Mr. Pinkerton and Inspector Bull, which can be viewed at