VAL GIELGUD & HOLT MAXWELL – Death at Broadcasting House. Inspector Simon Spears #1. Rich & Cowan, UK, hardcover, 1934. US title: London Calling. Doubleday, hardcover, 1934. Film: Phoenix, UK, 1934; released in the US as Death at a Broadcast.

MAX AFFORD – The Dead Are Blind. Jeffery Blackburn #2. John Long, UK, hardcover. Ramble House, 2007.

   These may be the first two books to remove someone from this Vale of Tears at a radio station; at least Gielgud and Marvell in Death at Broadcasting House say several times that it had not been done previously. Whatever the case, both books benefit greatly from their settings.

   Gielgud was head of radio-drama at the BBC from the late 1920s through the early 1960s. The first murder in Death at Broadcasting House is dependent upon a knowledge of the studios and the corridors at the then new BBC headquarters in London, At bit player in a drama, “The Scarlet Highwayman,” is murdered in the middle of the performance. Fortunately, his dying words fit in so well with the plot of the play that no one interrupts the broadcast.

   Enter Inspector Simon Spears of Scotland Yard, who is faced with a prickly collection of actors, directors, sound-effects men, and writers. A recording — a “blattnerphone” — of the play has been preserved, and Spears is able to identify the sound of a mysterious watch during the broadcast.

   Other clues include a torn copy of the script, some misplaced gloves, and an old playbill, Finally, Spears identifies the murderer, who responds by flinging himself from the BBC’s roof, The detective is not particularly memorable, but he is quietly competent and, except for a ridiculous explanation of why the murderer leaves blackmailing  letters behind, all the clues hang together.

   Max Afford was an Australian radio dramatist and Production Manager who wrote several novels about Jeffrey Blackburn and Chief Inspector Read. Afford had a viscous writing style;  perhaps this example from his earlier Death’s Mannikins  will suffice:

   Did the sinister business have its genesis in that ill-omened and bewilderingly coincidental plunge into space taken by the acidulous Miss Beatrice, when her crippled feet fouled the staircase at Rochester House and thus begin a grim chain of events that are, to this  day, almost unparalleled in criminological history?

   It is tempted to reply, “who cares?”, and toss such a book aside, but it’s worth swimming upstream through Afford’s prose to get to his ingenious plots.

   And The Dead Are Blind is certainly ingenious. As in Death at Broadcasting House, the murder occurs in the middle of a broadcast, but this time it is an impossible crime, as it is proven that those in the same studio could not physically  have been responsible.

   The plot has many elements, including a clever scheme of sending messages to criminals by hiding key words in the script, an elderly aunt who does not die conveniently, film actors, poisons, and an exceptionally clever solution.

   Jeffrey Blackburn occasionally comes close to the superciliousness of Philip MacDonald’s Anthony Gethryn, who may be the most annoying of all fictional detectives. When Blackburn talks to himself, he uses such language as:

   The intellect must be atrophying. God knows I’ve blundered before, but never to such inglorious depths as these! Is this to be my uncelebrated Waterloo — the one case from which Mr. Blackburn creeps away humbled and ashamed, to wince when it is mentioned and blanch at the recollection?

   And when he arrives at the solution, he exclaims to his roommate Inspector Read:

   For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; the flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing birds is come and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land!

   But unlike Philip MacDonald, Afford could find such effusions funny. Read responds, “The voice of the imbecile is heard in my bedroom,” And imbecile or not, Blackburn is a good detective.

   Both Death at Broadcasting House and The Dead Are Blind belong with such books as Sayers’ Nine Tailors in which plot is perfectly integrated with setting.

– Reprinted from The Poison Pen, Volume 6, Number 1 (Spring 1984). Permission granted by Doug Greene.