The Doctor of Pimlico, Being the Disclosure of a Great Crime
William Le Queux
First published in the UK by Cassell, 1919
This edition, 2013, by Oleander Press
‘If this man, Fetherston, has discovered the truth, as I fear he has done,’ the hard-faced man muttered to himself,’ then by his action today he has sealed his own doom! – and Enid Orlebar herself will silence him!’
Walter Fetherston, the hero of The Doctor of Pimlico, is a popular novelist who is apparently so modest about his career that he spends much of his time in Europe under an assumed name. This, of course, is only a cover story and he is, on the quiet, one of Scotland Yard’s most trusted amateur consultants. Fetherston’s personal and professional lives are about to become entangled in those of the Elcombe family.
General Sir Hugh Elcombe, ‘as all the world knows, had had a brilliant career in Afghanistan, in Egypt, Burma, Tirah, the Transvaal, and in France’. Unfortunately, the General has a ‘hideous secret’ which has placed him in the power of the titular Doctor of Pimlico, George Weirmarsh. The good Doctor is leading some sort of evil scheme out of his ratty surgery, and the General is a vital part of his plans.
In a flash there recurred to him every incident of those dramatic interviews with the Mephistophelean doctor. He would at that moment have given his very soul to be free of that calm, clever, insinuating man who, while providing him with a handsome, even unlimited income, yet at the same time held him irrevocably in the hollow of his hand.
Elcombe’s step-daughter Enid is an outdoorsy girl, ‘not one of those befrilled, fashion-plate dolls that one meets at the after-war crushes and dances’, with great, dark, tragic eyes in a noble face. Fetherston has fallen for Enid, but she comes with a lot of baggage. Weirmarsh has a ‘strong and unseen influence’ over Enid – ‘he knew that he held her in bonds strong as steel, that his will was hers – for good or for evil’. Added to which, Fetherston strongly suspects she murdered one of her exes. It would take a lot of tragic eyes to persuade me to hang around in that situation. Luckily, Enid has a lot of tragic eyes.
Let’s be honest about Le Queux – we’re not in the presence of a literary great here. Every character is either curiously mysterious or mysteriously curious, and all are clearly equipped with either black hats or white hats so that you don’t lose track of who you’re supposed to like. It’s even difficult to take seriously Fetherston’s doubts about Enid, especially as he keeps ignoring them himself.
However, what we have here is a once massively popular author whose works once ranked alongside Edgar Wallace, Erskine Childers, and John Buchan. He deserves attention as a part and parcel of Britain’s cultural life in this tumultuous period.
The book is in many ways a snapshot of Britain after World War One, still smarting from the conflict and trying to find its feet.
The scene was the same as it is every night at the Savoy; the music, the smart dresses of the women, the flowers, the shaded lights, the chatter and the irresponsible laughter of the London world amusing itself after the stress of war.
What comes through most strongly is a strong sense of distrust of the peace. This may reflect Le Queux’s own life-long paranoia about Germany. In his earlier career he had churned out dozens of propaganda pieces such as The Invasion of 1910, which outlined a fictional invasion of the UK by Germany. During the war he apparently perpetually and unsuccessfully lobbied for police protection as he feared German reprisals.
Anyway, for Weirmarsh at least, the War is still going on. His dastardly plot foreshadows a much better known novel of World War Two, making me wonder if the later author was influenced by a reading of Le Queux. Luckily, Fetherston is on the case… and they are not the only ones playing a high-stakes game.
The Doctor of Pimlico is the second in the London Bound series by the small Cambridge publisher Oleander Books. The book is clearly a labour of love – it is very nicely bound with new cover art by Fitzwilliam Museum designer Ayshea Carter. I’m hoping to interview London Bound’s series editor, the bookseller and CWA judge Richard Reynolds, soon.
See also: The Riddle of the Sands, The Thirty-Nine Steps
I am entering The Doctor of Pimlico in the Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge, in the Amateur Night category.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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