Sun 24 May 2015
by Thomas Baird
J. S. FLETCHER – The Middle Temple Murder. Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, 1922. First published in the UK: Ward Lock, hardcover, 1919. Reprinted many times including: Dover Press, softcover, 1980.
Julian Symons, English author and critic, coined a good name for the multitude of middle-rank mystery writers who lacked literary skill and ingenuity — the Humdrums. J. S. Fletcher stood in the front rank of the prolific English phalanx of Humdrums. He wrote over a hundred books on a variety of subjects, and the majority were detective stories. These melodramas are extremely conventional, with the not-too-brilliant central puzzle dominating the story. They are a comfortable confirmation of decency and lawfulness for the moneyed middle class. Snobbery descends to racial prejudice (with several Chinese villains), and despicable, evil foreigners have dark complexions and comical accents.
Not much scientific detection is involved, and the tenets of the Golden Age are not closely followed. There is too much reliance on coincidence, detectives missing details, failure to follow up clues, and mysterious figures who appear to wrap up the plot at the end.
It is a trifling triumph to select one of Fletcher’s detective stories as his best. From The Amaranth Club (1926) to The Yorkshire Moorland Murder (1930), there is not much to choose from, except for The Middle Temple Murder.
While the plot is fairly pedestrian, many of Fletcher’s defects are absent. It is one of his earliest works, and attracted the first real notice for Fletcher in the United States when it was championed by Woodrow Wilson. The story concerns Frank Spargo, subeditor of the Watchman, who happens to be present when a bludgeoned body is found in the Middle Temple.
The hotshot reporter (he’s as bright as any latter-day Flash Casey) teams up with Ronald Breton, barrister, to follow the clues in this devious mystery. The victim is John Marbury, from Australia, who was struck down on his first night back in London after an absence of many years.
This photo-procedural novel is a case of complicated theft, legacy, parentage, and includes a suspected empty coffin. A major motif (as in many Fletcher tales) is railway travel- checking timetables; confirming alibis; zipping around to discover clues; getaways and pursuits.
Fletcher has been praised for his novels set in the English countryside, but the atmosphere in most of these is overwrought and the descriptions dull. Novels such as The Middle Temple Murder and The Charing Cross Mystery (1923) are vivid because most of the action takes place in the streets, byways, squares, stations, and buildings of London, and is reported in factual detail.
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.