DAVID FROME – Homicide House. Popular Library; paperback reprint. No date stated, but circa 1969. First edition: Rinehart, 1950. British title: Murder on the Square. Robert Hale, 1951. US hardcover reprint: Detective Book Club (3-in-1 edition), July 1950. Previously serialized in The Saturday Evening Post in seven parts between September 24 and November 5, 1949.

   Since the subtitle of the hardcover edition is “Mr. Pinkerton Returns,” I’ll begin by listing all of the Evan Pinkerton books. While David Frome was byline listed on all of the books, you might better know “him” as Leslie Ford, author of the Grace Latham and Colonel John Primrose mysteries. Taken from Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin:

The Hammersmith Murders (n.) Doubleday 1930 [England]
Two Against Scotland Yard (n.) Farrar 1931 [England]

DAVID FROME Homicide House

The Man from Scotland Yard (n.) Farrar 1932 [England]
The Eel Pie Murders (n.) Farrar 1933 [England]
Mr. Pinkerton Finds a Body (n.) Farrar 1934 [Oxford]
Mr. Pinkerton Goes to Scotland Yard (n.) Farrar 1934 [England]

DAVID FROME Homicide House

Mr. Pinkerton Grows a Beard (n.) Farrar 1935 [England]
Mr. Pinkerton Has the Clue (n.) Farrar 1936 [England]
The Black Envelope (n.) Farrar 1937 [Brighton]
Mr. Pinkerton at the Old Angel (n.) Farrar 1939 [England]
Homicide House (n.) Rinehart 1950 [England]

   As you see, there was a gap well over ten years long between this, the last book in the series and the preceding one. There were 10 or 11 Grace Latham books that appeared in the interim. It wasn’t as though the author, whose real name was Zenith Jones Brown, 1898-1983, wasn’t doing any writing in the meantime. As Leslie Ford, her last book appeared in 1962 (Trial by Ambush) a non-series book.

   My review of Ford’s The Woman in Black appeared here on the M*F blog a while back, in case you’d like to go back and take a look.

DAVID FROME Homicide House

   There are a couple of ways I could continue from here, and by flipping a mental coin, I’ll say something first about Mr. Pinkerton, whose adventures in murder mysteries I’ve now read the first I ever have. I’d assumed he was a stalwart sort of fellow, confidently solving crimes by the dozens as a friend and chief confidant of Chief Inspector Bull of Scotland Yard.

   Wrong, all the way around. Evan Pinkerton is the meekest, most afraid-of-his-own shadow detective sleuth there has to be ever been. Now a widower and owner of an small apartment building in Godolphin Square, he is afraid to tell the landlady that he is indeed the owner, disbelieving as he does that he is himself. Perhaps his penny-pinching wife will come back from the grave and take it away from him, he fears. (This is being hen-pecked to the extreme, one thinks, and rightly so.)

   And so he is stuck in a miserable room on the third floor, sharing a bath with the cook, who fortunately enough, is very seldom seen. The crimes he has solved, they must have been more or less by accident, as Bull has forcefully demanded that he quite positively stay away from any futures brushes with murder cases that need looking into.

   Which leaves the current one at hand to tell you about. What struck me most, from the very first page, is that here is a mystery that is centered about a building that has been damaged by the bombing during the war. It’s now a few years after the war, and about all that is standing in the home across the square from Mr. Pinkerton’s are a few walls and the charred remains of a stone staircase. Nerves are often still shattered and decent food is still a problem.

Anthony Gilbert: Death Blackout

   I may be wrong about this, but I am pointing this out because I do not believe that very many British mysteries written during or just after the war actually dwell on how difficult a time it really was for the general population. This is one of the few exceptions I can actually think of at the moment, the other being Anthony Gilbert’s Death in the Blackout (1942). I’m sure there are more, but if there were many, it would seem that the opening scenes of this book would not have struck me as being so unusual.

   What I also found very striking is that how strong a Woolrich-ian sense of the sudden infatuation, coincidence and/or disorientation there is in the first few chapters. On page 7 Mr. Pinkerton meets Daniel McGrath hunting for the house that was damaged, seeking for the girl who had once lived there and whom he had met in a bomb shelter during the war, and here he is, six years later, having just come from America and planning to ask her to marry him, not even knowing her name.

   Of course she now lives in the same building as Mr. Pinkerton, and of course she is not yet married, and of course she recognizes him immediately, but of course she slaps his face when she learns his name, his name being the same as a noted detective she assumes has come to find and arrest her father.

   Whew. This makes for terrific reading, to be sure.

   Here from page 43 is a passage that I hope illustrates exactly what I am saying. It describes their first meeting in six years, from McGrath’s point of view, as she is getting off a train:

    She raised her head and pushed her dark hair from her forehead with a quick nervous gesture before she stooped to gather up her bags. For Dan McGrath standing outside on the damp murky platform it was as vivid an instant as he had ever lived. He was back in the Underground shelter on the dark, chilling stairs, the reek of fear and antiseptics in his nostrils, all hell loose in the invisible world above them, his arms tight around her, feeling her pounding heart against him, her breath in staccato tempo cool against his burning cheek. It was the instant he had lived six years to feel again. It was a sharp renascence, an affirmation of a dream that was no star-dusted illusion but brilliant reality, swelling his heart, melting it with sudden warmth and glowing tenderness. He had had a vision, and he had doubted it. There on the platform in the instant his doubts had been swept away.

DAVID FROME Homicide House

   No mere mystery story could top a passage like this, and while Homicide House tries, it is doomed to failure. True love prevails — is it OK if I tell you that? — but with difficulty, some by purely natural causes, and some by authorial hand only — or if not the latter, then the wonderfully funny fickleness of fate.

   Mary Winship’s father has disappeared, many years before — she now lives with her sickly mother and a truly formidable aunt in Mr. Pinkerton’s building — and vanishing at the same time was a valuable painting. And with Daniel McGrath unwittingly stirring things up, dead bodies begin to accumulate in Mr. Pinkerton’s abode.

   The latter’s not much of a detective, or at least he’s not in this book, but his activities toward that end also initiate worry and concern on the part of a blackmailer and a killer, not (it is eventually discerned) one and the same. It all works out in the end, but the first seven chapters are what I’ll remember from this book, and not the last two (with a connecting bridge of largely filler material in between).