Last month I read one of the two Francis Beeding novels published by Arcturus: The Norwich Victims. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and it seems to have captured people’s imaginations, so I was very glad to get hold of a copy of this earlier title, especially as it has the reputation of being the better of the two books.
Death Walks in Eastrepps opens in July 1930. A man known as Robert Eldridge is sneaking up to Eastrepps in Norfolk on the train.
(Here comes the geography bit. Northrepps is a real place near the Norfolk coast, but there is no Eastrepps on the map. I suspect Eastrepps is standing in for the resort town of Cromer for some reason best know to the authors. It is in the right place, and about the right size (population 5,000, we’re told), but on the other hand no pier is mentioned, and Cromer is about 95% pier.
Equally, Eldridge’s habit of catching a direct train from Fenchurch Street to North Norfolk seemed a bit unlikely to this commuter*. However, Wikipedia tells us that the Great Eastern Railway used Fenchurch Street as an alternative to Liverpool Street for the first half of the 20th century, so maybe that’s OK.
There’s no way you could do it in two-and-a-half hours though.**)
Anyhow, Eldridge is seemingly a normal city gent, but he has two dirty secrets (which we find out in chapter one, by the way, so no spoliers):
- He is actually James Selby of Anaconda Ltd, a company which spectacularly crashed 16 years previously, taking its many shareholders’ savings with it. Eldridge/Selby absconded to South America and since his return under an assumed name has rebuilt his fortunes, but has never quite managed to pay back the people who were ruined by his misadventures.
- He is conducting an affair with a woman in Eastrepps called Margaret Withers. Hence the sneaking.
Eastrepps is a quiet seaside resort of the polite variety (ready-made suits and straw boaters are unwelcome) but this year the lucrative holiday season is disrupted by the brutal murder of Miss Mary Hewitt, spinster of the parish and one of the many people rendered penniless by the Anaconda crash.
Murder is bad for business. The tourists begin to stay away:
…the frightened trippers fled in scores and minstrels played their jazz on deserted sands, and no one ventured to stir abroad after nightfall.
Eastrepps’ finest are Inspector (not really a full Inspector) Protheroe and Sergeant Ruddock. Protheroe is pompous but not without merit. Ruddock is the more ambitious and intelligent of the pair. However, their previous ‘big case’ was a persistent poacher and they soon profess themselves stumped in the face of murder. And so Scotland Yard arrives, in the form of Inspector Wilkins, one of the ‘Big Five’.
Before long, more bodies have piled up under the noses of the police, the press, and the hastily-formed Eastrepps Vigilance Association. The ‘Eastrepps Evil’ has assumed national prominence, questions are asked in the House, and the Yard is officially baffled. And stays that way until the local plod make an incriminating discovery.
Martin Edwards has wondered if this is the first serial killer novel (although of course the ‘Eastrepps Evil’ is referred to as a maniac – see my thoughts on the terminology). Certainly it has the escalating body-count of a serial killer story, if not the grand guignol aspects, and the killer may (or may not) be absolutely barking.
For once I solved the case before the police: I intuited (as opposed to working out) the identity of the Eastrepps Evil around two-thirds of the way through. But there are other valid suspects up until the final chapter.
‘Beeding’ (who was really two authors: John Palmer and Hilary Saint George Saunders) had a light touch as a writer, for example using multiple viewpoints during a courtroom scene to keep it interesting. The characters are sympathetically described. The odious Eldridge is redeemed by the honesty of his feelings for Margaret. Protheroe is conceited and political but puts the investigation first. And so on – there are no caricatures (even the ex-Indian Army Colonel escapes this).
Overall, this is a lot of fun. I marginally prefer The Norwich Victims, but do please read both.
* Getting from Norfolk to London takes up too much of my life.
** See? It makes you cynical.
See also the very good points made in these very good blogs (although they all miss the train thing):
Do You Write Under Your Own Name? ‘Death Walks in Eastrepps is an early example of the serial killer story. In fact, I’d be very interested to hear about any Golden Age detective novels about serial killers that pre-date it – Agatha Christie and Philip MacDonald ventured into this territory a little later, but did anyone get there sooner?’
Vintage Pop Fictions ‘I had a number of issues with this book. Most notably I had reservations about the ending, and about the motive of one of the chief suspects… This novel also includes a rather protracted courtroom scene. I personally felt it was a little too protracted.’
Clothes in Books ‘Margaret, the main female character, would undoubtedly be a very bad woman in most novels of the time: she is adulterous, tells lies, wants a fake divorce and makes it clear that she would perjure herself if necessary to save her lover. But the authors are absolutely non-judgmental about this’
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.