JOHN DELLBRIDGE – The Lady in the Wood

Hurst & Blackett Ltd., hardcover; no date stated [1950]. No US publication.

   As readers of this blog will know full well, it has recently been discovered that “John Dellbridge” was the pen name of Frederick Joseph De Verteuil (1887-1963). A native of Trinidad, he became a barrister and practiced law in India and England before becoming a novelist.

    I’ll forego the usual bibliography, as the previous entry already includes one, as well as a small amount of other information that has been learned about the author. There are six mysteries to his credit in all, however, the last three having as their lead character one Rupert Hambledon, about whom more in a minute. The Lady in the Wood is the last of the three, which were published in a short span between 1947 and 1950. Dellbridge’s earlier crime-writing career spanned a much earlier 1927 to 1929.


    The story is told in quasi-documentary style, in the beginning as if in the form of local Inspector Kemsing’s report to some superior officer, starting with Chapter One, page 7:

   At 6:30 p.m. yesterday, Friday, and August, Mrs. Martineau of Sharpes Cottage, Checksworth, reported by telephone that she and her husband had found the naked body of Lady Charlotte Barnet in a larch plantation in Checksam Park. There seemed to be a bullet wound in the head. Her husband was standing by the body. She described the exact spot. I telephoned the police surgeon and the St. John Ambulance and at once proceeded to the scene by car with Sergeant Streeter and Constables Neve, Avis and Ayling, with a camera. Mrs. Martineau was waiting for us at the junction of a bridle path and the Diddlehurst-Midworth road: Sharpes Cottage is about fifty yards East of the junction of the path and road and invisible from the path as the road bends there.

   The dead woman had been a heroine in World War II, having parachuted into France and done great deeds undercover with the Resistance. Some Vichy French and some members of the Gestapo are immediately suspected. On the other hand, this is England, and the world is in the process of becoming civilized again. Lady Barnet had come down from London to be one of the guests at nearby Schlatts Hall, the home of Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Bonteve.

   So a manor house mystery is what this is, no more and no less, replete with constant and subsequent misbehavior and strange actions on the part of the many participants, many clues, another death – that of a maid who perhaps knew too much and who turned to blackmail as a result? – and endless timetabling, more than I can remember in any mystery I’ve read in many years.

   Sir Rupert Hambledon is called in early on by one of the suspects. That he has a title means that he travels in the same circles as the class of people who live in or are guests at manor homes. He is not from Scotland Yard, however, but a very expensive inquiry agent. (One hesitates in referring to him as a mere private detective.) Being the “best known detective in England” and “the smartest” (page 111), in no time at all he is in charge of the case, Inspector Kemsing more than willing to defer to him.

   One of Sir Rupert’s other traits is that “he commits irregularities that no official policeman would dare to try” and “these irregularities get results.” (Also page 111.) By the way, the inspector does not narrate the entire book. He alternates telling the story of the investigation with Mr. Perceval Hadlow-Down, a solicitor of one of the guests, who often plays Watson to Sir Rupert. Says Hadlow-Down early in his own narrative, when it is his turn;

   I am a thriller ‘fan’. Many of them are very good, though they have lost some of the savour since Lord Peter Wimsey went out of business and Dr. Fortune was replaced by a colleague of mine called Clunk who should have been struck off years ago.

Sir Rupert may outdo either of those two gentlemen by stating on page 70:

    “I’ve known who the murderer was since this morning,” he asserted with a stort of Olympian impatience.

   Of course there is not a shred of legal evidence at this point, and if the murderer were to be charged, the inspector would be “laughed out of court.”


   Does Sir Rupert indeed know? In the end, after the killer is indeed caught and charged, there are indications that he did, but to my mind, the strongest point in his final summary of the case was based on an flimsy (and even erroneous) insight into human nature. He was exaggerating, were you to ask me. It was a good guess, perhaps more, but that it took the remaining two-thirds of the book to name the killer for keeps strongly suggests that a good guess is all that it was.

   The purpose of the alternating narration – not too common in detective novels? – serves the author in this case well. That is to say, it keeps the reader off-balance, preventing her or him of being aware of what each narrator knew and when while the story was being told by the other.

   In short, however, if you are the kind of mystery reader who likes lots of clues, time tables, and exhaustive interrogations of the parties involved, you will find a lot to like, if not love, in this book. If not, then most definitely not.

— February 2007