Rope for Breakfast
Published for the Crime Book Society by Denis Archer, 1945
Source: Richmond Books, Richmond, Yorkshire
I picked this up during a brief stay in Richmond last month, mainly because the inscription caught my eye.
Andrew Spiller seems to be one of the forgotten rank and file of British crime writers. Rope for Breakfast was his third novel, following Whom Nobody Owns and If Murder Interferes with Business.
So, is he worth reading? On the basis of Rope for Breakfast, I’d say yes. It’s an early police procedural with more than a hint of noir.
Small-time gangster Rube the Red is in the employ of a gang of counterfeiters who have developed an almost-perfect method of reproducing pound notes and a cunning way of getting them into circulation. They look for busy places – race days in particular – and send dozens of men out with the dodgy currency. In a matter of hours they have got rid of the money in hundreds of almost undetectable tiny transactions.
A spurious pound note tendered here for a packet of cigarettes; there for a short railway journey; somewhere else for a book, a toilet article, a glass of beer.
And the gang is planning one last job – an incredibly ambitious plan to flood London with false currency in a single day and retire on the proceeds. The Boss (all power and arrogance) and the Ant (the slightly resentful brains of the operation) have nominated Rube to lead operations on the ground.
There’s more than a hint of noir in the story of Rube, outwardly an ambitious criminal on his way up, but doomed by a fatal flaw. A combination of brain injury and a liking for brandy make him subject to fits of amnesia.
When these fits are on him, he loses – completely loses – his own personality, that of a cunning, artful crook: becomes – instead of the glib, vigorous, callous individual he normally is – a creature without wits or purposes; a vacant-minded wanderer; an automaton, if you like.
Rube is a liability, and struggles to maintain his professionalism. There’s no question what the Boss will do to him if he fails… but Rube can’t seem to change.
Turning to the police, we meet the kind of patient, omniscient police force that can also be found in Gideon’s Day and The Tiger in the Smoke – perhaps best typified by one of those scenes where Records is able to turn up a card with carefully-noted details on Rube the Red:
But most important of the classifications was that under the title, ‘Known Habits’, which told that Ruben Morgan was ‘addicted to the consumption of brandy’, the incessant smoking of cigarettes or the chewing of a toothpick, and the society of women. What particular variety of women was not specified, but taken in conjunction with the fact that he sometimes operated as a ‘prostitute’s bully’, that could be assumed.
‘Nice little bloke altogether.’ pronounced the detective-inspector.
The counterfeiting investigation is led by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Maybury and Sergeant Hales. Inspector Maybury is a pipe-smoking Dorsetman with an encyclopedic knowledge developed almost entirely through the collecting and swapping of cigarette cards – his History of Printing is most useful. His protege Hales is a younger and more energetic man who shares his boss’s slightly grim sense of humour.
(It’s worth noting that Maybury isn’t as paternalistic as he seems. He’s the first to suggest a spot of house-breaking to obtain crucial evidence, and he’s not backward in suggesting a spot of gun-play.)
The police force has a sense of scale and we see many individuals working together on aspects of the case in a way which reminded me of Ed McBain. The young and efficient DS Hansford joins Maybury’s team from a connected inquiry, and the provincial Inspector Lusty of Watersedge Police Station leads another part of the investigation. Another DS, Burton, although no Sherlock Holmes, uncovers some crucial evidence early on.
The whole thing ends in a tense siege in a seemingly innocent suburban house in the leafy environs of Watersedge Road.
Spiller’s style is best described as tinged by the hard-boiled school. He’s not always successful in shedding the essential chumminess of British mystery writers, but the bones of a properly seamy crime novel are there. Both criminals and police are tough, and there’s no mistaking the drive and cunning of one side and the persistence and intelligence of the other. I’m impressed.
There’s not a lot of info available on Spiller. Mystery File has a bibliography and his dates (1891-1976), plus some biographical information supplied by his family. The cover gallery doesn’t include this book, sadly.
Has anybody else read Spiller?