WALTER TYRER – Such Friends Are Dangerous. Staples Press, UK, hardcover, 1954. 1st US publication: Garland Publishing, hardcover, 1983. Paperback reprint: Perennial, 1984.

   Recently while perusing Barzun & Taylor’s Catalogue of Crime I came across quite serendipitously the title of this book. I was tantalized by Barzun’s brief write-up, which promised something along the lines of an early Ruth Rendell or Minette Walters book.

   It also happened to be one of the starred titles indicating that Barzun reissued it in one of his two sets of “Top 50 Mystery Novels.” I immediately went looking for the book and was lucky to discover there was a copy at my local branch of the Chicago Public Library.

   The story deals with the investigation of the drowning death of Kitty Pinnock, the town tramp, who inveigled her way into the lives of nearly every man in town, taking from them what she wanted and discarding them when she found a new conquest.

   There are plenty of secrets uncovered from a multitude of characters and there are several suspects found among the discarded men Kitty left in her wake of seductive destruction. However, lingering in the background of the involved investigation is Helen Luton, a mousy housewife whose husband is one of Kitty’s abandoned projects, and Vera Sylvaine, Helen’s ultra-hip writer friend who constantly reminds Helen that she is undervalued and underappreciated by her husband.

   Mrs. Luton is painted as a buffoon by Tyrer, and the reader may wonder (as I did) why several chapters are devoted to her conversations with Vera who seems to be quite a bad influence despite her supposed good intentions. A clever reader may begin to glean the author’s intent, but I challenge anyone to come up with the genuine and fully accurate solution. For me it came as a jaw-dropping surprise.

   It’s been a long time since I audibly gasped when the solution was presented. I never saw it coming. That, I think, makes for an excellent writer who knows exactly what he is doing.

   Even if the surprise may be a trick used many times by modern writers, in the context of Tyrer’s story it still felt like the rug was pulled out from under me. Up till the final pages the book is a scathing satire on village life, so the reader is paying attention to all the gossip, all the deceit, the facades being ripped away by the police inspector and his accidental Watson, an intrusive reporter looking for his “big break.”

   There is quite a bit of legitimate detective work on the part of both the police inspector and the reporter, who at one point seems determined to solve the crime himself and who comes up with some very unusual ideas about how and why the crime was committed.

   While all this is going on Tyrer has something hidden up his sleeve which he presents almost on the final page when the murderer is unmasked and a horrifying secret is finally revealed.

   This is an excellent book by a man who spent his early career writing school boy adventures, moved on to short stories and novels, with the latter portion of his career split between magazine story writing and contributing several thrillers for the Amalgamated Press “Sexton Blake Library” series.

   Barzun in his intro to the reissue of Such Friends Are Dangerous disparagingly refers to Tyrer as a “writer of primarily juvenile adventures” and then goes on to insult that audience by calling the readers of such books “the simple minded.” (I take he didn’t think much of children as readers. Or am I misinterpreting that?)

   I find much of what Barzun has to say about the genre to be condescending or arrogant, often extremely shallow. For instance, he often misses obvious humor and modern sarcasm, and he definitely shows a limited spectrum of tastes in detective fiction.

   But those two potshots make me think that he was not only a snob but just plain old mean. In any case, I like to think that this book was a personal triumph for Walter Tyrer, as it appears to be his only foray in writing for a truly adult audience.

Editorial Comment:   I am somewhat surprised and even more chagrined to discover that I do not own a copy of this book. It can be obtained cheaply enough, but if you were to search it out, in all likelihood you would have to settle for the Perennial Library edition. There are 10 copies of the latter on ABE under $10 at the moment, but none of either hardcover.