A 1001 MIDNIGHTS Review
by Bill Pronzini


R. A. J. WALLING

R. A. J. WALLING – Marooned with Murder. Morrow, hardcover, 1937. UK edition published as Bury Him Deeper, Hodder & Stoughton, hc, 1937.

   R. A. J. Walling, a British journalist and newspaper editor who began writing mysteries as a hobby in his late fifties, received a good deal of acclaim during his time. (His first book was published in 1927, his last posthumously in 1949.)

   The New York Times stated in 1936 that Walling had considerable skill in weaving mystery plots; the Saturday Review of Literature decided that he wrote suavely baffling stories; the eminent critic Will Cuppy said of one of his early novels that it was “absolutely required reading.”

   This reviewer couldn’t agree less.

   In the first place, Walling wrote some of the dullest mysteries ever committed to paper; it may even be said that he elevated dullness to a fine art. And in the second place, his series sleuth, private inquiry agent Philip Tolefree, is a twit.

   He says things like, “You’re a vandal, Pierce. You’ve feloniously broken into my ivory tower. Never mind. I’d have been bored in another half hour. How’d you find me out? Sit down, my dear fellow. Cigarette? Pipe? Well, carry on. What’s the trouble now? Or did you come for the sake of my beautiful eyes?”

   He is also fond of quoting obscure Latin phrases, treating his sometime Watson, Farrar, as if he were an idiot, and withholding information from everyone including the reader.

   Although Tolefree operates out of a London apartment, most of his cases seem to take him into the countryside. He solves them in the accepted Sherlockian manner of detection and deduction, using an inexhaustible fund of knowledge both esoteric and ephemeral.

R. A. J. WALLING

   Another reason he is so successful at unmasking murderers is his familiarity with such matters and motives as skeletons in closets, hidden relationships, peculiar wills, strange disappearances, and Nazi infiltrators, since nearly all his investigations seem to uncover one or any combination of these.

   Marooned with Murder is no exception; its central plot points are hidden relationships and a strange disappearance. It begins well enough, with a dandy premise: Tolefree and Farrar, on a holiday in the Scottish Highlands, decide to rent a boat and sail her out of one of the fjordlike lochs into the Atlantic.

   A sudden storm shipwrecks them on the tiny island of Eilean Rona, where they are rescued by the lord of the isle, Martin Gregg; artist Bill Parracombe; and two odd and fiercely loyal Scotsmen, Fergus and Jamie. Also staying at the island’s ancient castle for the summer are Gregg’s wife and small son, and the boy’s governess.

   The storm continues to batter Rona, preventing any of them from leaving. A chance remark by Farrar, about a retired sea captain he knows named Strachan who lives over on the mainland, for some reason seems to frighten everyone; so does the remark that Tolefree is a detective.

   It soon becomes clear that Strachan had been hunting lost treasure on the island and disappeared one foggy Sunday three months before, along with his boat and a mysterious companion; and that the inhabitants of Rona know something about that disappearance and are desperate to protect their guilty knowledge.

R. A. J. WALLING

   So far, so good. But Walling spoils the stew by interminable passages of cat-and-mouse dialogue, annoying cryptic remarks from Tolefree, and a lot of rather silly running around. He also lets the reader know early on that Tolefree and Farrar do not fear for their lives; they think their hosts are all swell people, even though one of them may be a murderer.

   The result is plenty of mystery but no menace and therefore no tension. And the mystery isn’t satisfying, either, when its rather predictable solution is revealed.

   Walling has been called (by his publishers) “the foremost exponent of the seemingly ‘quiet’ mystery, the civilized story with … excitement and drama seething below the surface.”

   Readers who don’t find that a euphemism for dull, and would like to examine Walling’s work for themselves, should try The Corpse in the Coppice (1935), The Corpse with the Floating Foot (1936), The Corpse with the Eerie Eye (1942), and A Corpse by Any Other Name (1943). The last-named title has some effective descriptions of Londoners coping with the wartime blackout and blitz.

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   Reprinted with permission from 1001 Midnights, edited by Bill Pronzini & Marcia Muller and published by The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2007.   Copyright © 1986, 2007 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust.