Fatality in Fleet Street is the third in the London Bound series of mysteries from Cambridge’s Oleander Press.
The set-up is ambitious for a mystery novel.
It is 1938. In chapter one we meet our victim, Lord Carpenter, a media mogul who shapes the opinion of 36 million readers in Britain and the colonies through his Affiliated Publications. Completely uncharacteristically for a media mogul, Carpenter is far from being on the side of the angels.
‘In the autumn of 1937, twelve months ago almost to the day, I decided that Russia must be crushed.’ Lighting a cigar, Carpenter mentioned his decision with the same casual air as if it had been to have his house spring-cleaned […] The Empire is simmering. It needs only one more puff of flame to make it boil over.’
Having seen that Soviet Russia poses a serious threat to British trade, Carpenter has been waging a propaganda campaign against Stalin’s more moderate successors with the aim of kick-starting a second world war. The Prime Minister is seemingly powerless to stem the tide of popular opinion and the opening chapter of Fatality finds the country on the brink of opening hostilities with Russia.
(You’ll have noticed that this does not reflect any known account of 1938. This is because the book was written in 1933. Sprigg might have been good, but he was no Nostradamus.)
Carpenter’s staff on the Mercury newspaper are given the job of fanning the final ‘puff of flame’: a suspected Russian atrocity against British citizens. The reporters and their editor-in-chief are largely out of step with their boss’s plans, but it seems only his death can stop them running the story. His death follows in short order.
So a pretty hefty motive for murder (not to mention more mundane matters – Carpenter treats his staff like serfs and is a philanderer to boot).
The means? The jewel-encrusted Cellini dagger conveniently displayed on the wall of Carpenter’s office. The opportunity? The entire newspaper staff is locked overnight in their building to stop the story leaking. Carpenter retires to the private bedroom adjacent to his office to sleep – forever, as it turns out.
The list of suspects begins with the newspaper staff but soon expands outwards once Scotland Yard get down to the investigating.
The Yard’s Inspector Manciple is ably assisted – and occasionally hindered – by the Mercury‘s own crime reporter. Charles Venables, fresh from his triumph in the Garden Hotel Case, is slyly reminiscent of many a gentleman-sleuth.
[Mrs Twemlow, a suspect’s landlady] had watched the investigations of the police with contempt. They were like that. She awaited with complacency the arrival of the foolish-looking private detective who would find the truth.
Charles arrived. She thought the monocle was carrying it rather too far, but here obviously was the man to clear up this mystery.
Venables is a conflicted sleuth, since his main interest is in securing the hand of Miranda Jameson, the ‘toughest woman journalist‘ on Fleet Street. Miranda’s involvement in the case means Venables is rarely playing on a straight bat with the authorities. However, this being the golden age of detective fiction, Scotland Yard is sportingly content to leave the amateur to it.
There is loads of period interest here. The setting of a busy newspaper, from boardroom down to editorial cubby-hole, is well realised with little of the dilletantish frivolity of Murder Must Advertise. The business/political set-up lends a broader scope and significance to the crime than a simple murder investigation. The supporting cast is believable – the fact that their jobs actually matter to them and to the plot lends verisimilitude. Sprigg’s style is readable, and Venables is much less aggravating than some of his contemporaries – he has none of the nails-down-a-blackboard tics of Wimsey. Even if the monocle is a bit much.
The final resolution is, I think, odd. I’ll say no more. By the way, this is one of the few crime novels in which you absolutely must not skip forward to read the final line. Stop yourself.
Overall, an intelligent and ambitious crime novel. Well worth adding to your collection.
See also: The Doctor of Pimlico
The Passing Tramp recently ran an article on St John Sprigg, which is well worth reading. Fatality ties in nicely to the Passing Tramp’s analysis of 1930s crime fiction as urban, industrial, and concerned with current affairs.
Final destination: A keeper
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.