William F. Deeck

JAMES CORBETT – Murder While You Wait. Herbert Jenkins, UK, hardcover, 1937.

   Readers — oh, all right, one to be exact, and she was pixilated — have insisted that I at least occasionally remind them of the works of James Corbett, that unfortunately neglected genius of the thriller. Since this is the final issue of TMF and thus vociferous complaints from others cannot be published, I will courageously risk it.

   If you are unacquainted with his works, the first thing to be said about Corbett is that when the familiar disclaimer is printed– “All the characters in this novel are purely imaginary and have no relation whatsoever to any person, living or dead” –he is one of the very few authors telling the literal truth. Or one certainly hopes he is.

   In this novel, Reginald Harcourt, M.P. for West Singleton, has been shot down in front of his residence after receiving a threat from “Murder While You Wait,” or M.W.Y.W. Seth Mannering, a rich barrister who had talked with Harcourt the night before his death and scoffed at the death threat, hires Malcolm Egerton, distinguished criminologist, to investigate the case.

   It is a complicated one, for twenty-six other people are apparently also in danger. Harcourt and the others had testified in the Broxton Financial Scandal. Some of the group begin receiving notices of their imminent death, and die they do. One is stabbed to death in a taxi, while another is murdered by machine-gun.

   When one of the threatened men commits suicide, Egerton explains it this way: “He was bluffing in Daly’s Cafe, and he left a note to that effect!” (The emphasis is Corbett’s.) Since you are all experienced and perceptive readers, you will understand that without my having to explain it.

   One person is threatened by M.W.Y.W. and is surrounded by Egerton, Mannering, the heroine, and a Scotland Yard detective. He dies anyhow at precisely the time predicted after having a nip of brandy. Mystery buffs will immediately suspect one of those four individuals. But if they do they will have forgotten that this is a James Corbett novel; the man actually died of a heart attack, a pure, if that’s the word I want, coincidence.

   Several times it is pointed out by the investigators that if they knew the name of the killer, they would have a better chance to catch him. As his many admiring readers are aware, Corbett never spares the logic.

   When another stabbing death occurs, Egerton keenly orders an X-ray. That, he is sure, will reveal that the same knife was used in the two murders. Unfortunately, the reader is never vouchsafed the results of this forensic miracle.

   Near the end of the novel, Egerton reveals the reason for his superb investigative ability: “I always get into contact with the unseen, with the mystic forces of the universe, then, after a long period of waiting, there comes a light in the picture.”

   Some readers, unused to Corbett’s characters, might wonder why he didn’t get in touch with the unseen earlier to solve the case; others might wonder why he isn’t doing it even as he speaks. Actually, since he is a Corbett character, he never does it.

   Or maybe he did and he doesn’t reveal it. He catches the murderer by identifying the five distinct clicks from a call-box when the killer picks up the receiver. Since the murderer hadn’t at that point given Egerton’s number, perhaps mystic forces did after all put a light in the picture.

— From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 13, No. 4, Fall 1992.

Editorial Comment:   Bill Deeck was a great champion of Corbett’s work, as you can readily discern from this review. You can also find a full page of quotes online that Bill accumulated from several of Corbett’s mysteries:

   Here are but two of my favorites from that page:

    “It was a morning gown of blue silk, one that stressed her grace of figure and matched her complexion.”

    “Pritchard sat up like a full-blown geranium.”

   Most of Corbett’s work was never published in the US, and unfortunately many of them are very hard to find. For example, there is at the moment but one copy of Murder While You Wait up for sale online, priced in the $70-75 range, depending on the venue. Perhaps a bargain at half that price! (Follow the link for a complete bibliography.)