ROMILLY & KATHERINE JOHN – Death by Request. Hogarth Crime; trade paperback. 1984. Also published as a Hogarth hardcover. Offset from the original [hardcover] Faber & Faber edition, 1933. Vintage/Ebury, US, hardcover and paperback, 1984.

   Quite surprisingly, given the fact that it’s been reprinted several times, this is the only mystery that the married couple of Romilly and Katherine John wrote. Who were they, is one question, and how did it happen that Hogarth reprinted it some 50 years later?

   For at least a partial answer, one must read the new introduction to the Hogarth edition, written by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan, as part a series of Hogarth Crime reprints of classic detective fiction. Romilly, born in 1906, was in the RAF, was briefly a civil servant, then a poet and an amateur physicist before dying in 1986. Katherine was a reviewer as well as a translator of Scandinavian books. She died two years before her husband, in 1984.

   The gap between 1933 and 1984 between editions may be one of the longest on record for any mystery novel. The fact remains that Hogarth Press considered it significant enough to reprint in a series of classic crime fiction. In that regard, the book is a locked-room mystery; and in its own inimitable way, a minor tour de force of one form or another, the details of which I most sincerely will do my best to avoid telling or revealing to you.

   The dead man is found in his bedroom at one of those old English manor residences so commonly found in works of mystery fiction, especially the English ones. He is found gassed to death in a heap on the floor, still dressed as he was the evening before, the window shut tightly, and (of course) the door was locked. It had to be broken down in order to enter in the morning. Could it have been suicide? No, Lord Malvern seems to have been well enough off, and he was off to visit his fiancée in London on the very same day as his death.

   Telling the story is the local vicar, an elderly man by the name of John Colchester, a long-time friend of Matthew Barry, the master of the house. Also staying over are various friends and relatives, including a comic-relief colonel who harrumphs all over the place; a weepy young girl; a recent widow only slightly older; the slightly deaf sister of Matthew; assorted staff, mostly female, save for a slightly villainous butler named Frampton.

   And to tell the truth Frampton is more than only slightly villainous. He’s a socialist, a seducer of young maids in the area, and — as the truth comes out — a blackmailer. Many letters which threaten to reveal secrets which others might wish kept unrevealed are found, some sent by Frampton, others perhaps not. Obviously, as these have a great deal to do with the plot, the letters — their contents, who received them, who sent them, and who may have intercepted them — must be given, as the book goes on, a exhaustive and thorough going over.

   And to tell you another truth, the going-over of the letters is probably too thorough and exhaustive. One is tempted, I must admit, to throw up one’s hands whenever another letter appears and must be discussed and put into the context of the previous ones.

   I see that I have neglected to mention the detective on the case. Nominally that would be Inspector Lockitt, but that particular gentleman seems content to do his work off-camera, as it were. Almost all of his activity is related to the vicar second-hand, and then of course the vicar must relay his impressions of the good Inspector Lockitt on to us, the reader. It seems a strange way to tell a mystery, but one must always get accustomed, eventually, to things we expect to occur in the usual way, but which do not, do we not?

   The bulk of the detective work is rather more accomplished, in fact, by an unusual twosome: (a) Mr. Nicholas Hatton, a friend of the dead man’s fiancée, one of those amateur detectives who are as common in British mystery fiction in the 1930s as damp old manor houses with murders committed within them, and (b) the aforementioned widow, Mrs. Fairfax, who proves to be a most tenacious (and efficacious) individual when it comes to solving mysteries.

   There are secrets galore that must come out before the solving is done, including at least two that should correctly be considered “bombshells” when they are revealed. There is, of course another secret at the end, which I promised not to tell or reveal to you, and looking back at what I have written, I do not believe that I have.

   So, is the book a classic? You may well ask, and you should. No, I say, but with a small hedge in the back of my mind. For today’s audiences, large portions of this exercise in murder-solving will be dreary and dull to the extreme. For those of you who like puzzles, well, the puzzle is there, and without a doubt, a double delight it is. The problem is that it’s, well, unskillfully told, when measured by more modern standards, say of five or so years later.

   That the door was locked on the inside, for example, is not revealed until page 50, whereas the body itself was found on page 24. Nor, surprisingly enough, is the locked room aspect very much — if at all — the focus of the tale. This may in part be due to the telling (see above) or the fact that (as is often the case) the solution (to the locked room aspect) is rather simple when explained, and therefore not very worthy of much dwelling upon.

   If you were to read this book — and if you are still with me, I would at least suggest that you should, for this must be the kind of mystery you prefer to read, not so? — you will also need to know what a geyser is, at least a geyser that one would find in the bathroom of a country house in England in the early 1930s. Readers of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Unnatural Death, for example, will have already come across one, I believe, if they were to think back upon it.