The Shrieking Pit
Arthur J. Rees
First published in the UK, 1919
This edition: Project Gutenberg
The inn, seen in the grey evening of a grey day, had a stark and sinister aspect, an atmosphere of mystery and secretiveness, an air of solitary aloofness in the dreary marshes, standing half shrouded in the night mists which were sluggishly crawling across the oozing flats from the sea. It was not a place where people could be happy—this battered abode of a past age on the edge of the North Sea, with the bitter waters of the marshes lapping its foundations, and the cold winds for ever wailing round its gaunt white walls.
I read my first Arthur J. Rees novel, The Moon Rock, last month, and found it a little underwhelming. However, in the course of finding out a bit more about the Australian-born Rees, I discovered one of his better-regarded novels was set in Norfolk (which is where I live) and decided to give it a try.
From page one, it was clear that this was a much more readable book. It opens in the breakfast room of the Grand Hotel, Durrington, in October 1916, a couple of nights after a Zeppelin attack has scared away many of the guests. Our hero Grant Colwyn is watching a young man, James Ronald, sitting alone at a nearby table, repeatedly and deliberately stabbing the tablecloth. To Colwyn the diagnosis is clear:
‘It must be shell-shock, and a very bad case – probably supposed to be cured, and sent up here to recuperate. I’ll keep an eye on him.’
Colwyn is joined at his table by Sir Henry Durwood, a renowned nerve specialist who has also been observing Ronald. Durwood and Colwyn are just in time to interrupt him as he begins what could be a violent fit, and carry him upstairs to his room to help him recover himself in peace. Sir Henry identifies epilepsy as the cause, and offers to take Ronald on as a patient.
However, next morning Ronald slips away from the Grand without settling his bill. His name soon crops up again – in connection with a robbery and murder at the remote village of Flegne. Ronald checked in to the Golden Anchor Inn, and that same night the other resident, the archeologist Roger Glenthorpe, was killed. Glenthorpe’s body was discovered by some locals at the bottom of the Shrieking Pit of the title. Ronald left the inn in a hurry in the morning, before the body was found, and has vanished.
Things seem clear enough, especially when Sir Henry weighs in with his diagnosis of epilepsy.
‘Is it consistent with petit mal, combined with furor epilepticus, for a man to commit murder, conceal the body of his victim, and remember nothing about it afterwards?’
‘Quite consistent, though the probability is, as I said before, for him to have some hazy recollection when he came to his senses, which would lead to his leaving that place as quickly as he could.’
However, Colwyn is no ordinary tourist. He is Grant Colwyn the famous detective –
‘Who has not heard of you, and your skill in the unravelling of crime? There are many people on both sides of the Atlantic who regard you as a public benefactor.’
– and he doesn’t believe Ronald is guilty. Colwyn is intuitive rather than a great thinker, and worries away at the case clue-by-clue until he sees a chink of light. His reputation means the police (or, at least, the gentlemanly top brass) are happy to include him in their investigations and conferences. However, the relationship between amateur and professional is less genial than usual. On a couple of occasions either Colwyn or his police rival Galloway ends up going off in a huff.
‘…my dear Galloway,’ said Colwyn genially. ‘Your gift of overcoming points which tell against you by ignoring them, and your careful avoidance of telltale inferences, would make you an ideal Crown Prosecutor.’
‘I don’t believe in inferences in crime,’ replied Galloway, flushing under the detective’s sarcasm. ‘I am a plain man, and I like to stick to facts.’
Despite Colwyn’s misgivings, Ronald is soon up in court for murder. But of course, Colwyn eventually spots some peculiarities which the police have overlooked.
The Shrieking Pit is a product of its time, and a lot of the book is spent unravelling clues. The Flegne inn, the Golden Anchor, is a rich seam of eccentricity. The landlord is a giant; his mother is violently insane and is kept locked in her room with her grand-daughter for company; the waiter is a lip-reading hunchback. The building itself is ripe for Golden Age detection, being built directly on to the side of a hill with a multitude of corridors running along its length, interconnecting rooms, recently installed gas lighting, and upstairs windows which can be comfortably reached from the ground.
Some good atmosphere also comes from a spooky quirk in the Inn’s wind-swept location. The Shrieking Pit is part of a prehistoric dwelling site Glenthorpe was analysing. The shrieking is supplied by its resident ghost, a White Lady who brings death to anyone who sees her. The locals are superstitious enough to stay away from the Pit during the night.
(By the way, there is a real Shrieking Pit in Norfolk, presumably Rees’ inspiration for the title, although it is nothing to do with prehistoric dwellings.)
The Norfolk setting, despite the fictionalised place names, is strong. The county’s cavalier attitude to place names is captured perfectly in Flegne, pronounced Fly by the locals. I’m not entirely sure how successful Rees’s dialect is. He does apologise in the Preface (‘I have found it impossible to transliterate the pronunciation into the ordinary English alphabet’), but he gives it a good try:
‘the chap that carried him must ‘a’ been powerful strong, because Herward told him his own arms were begunnin’ ter ache good tidily just a-howdin’ him up to the rope when they wor being a-hawled out the pit.’
There are some neatly amusing cameos:
Mr. Edgehill, the coroner, was one of those people who seized upon the war as a pretext for the exercise of their natural proclivity to interfere in other people’s affairs. He took the opportunity that every inquest gave him to lecture the British public on their duties and responsibilities in war-time. The body on which he was sitting formed his text, the jury was his congregation, and the newspaper reporters the vehicles by which his admonitions were conveyed to the nation. Mr. Edgehill saw a shirker in every suicide, national improvidence in a corpse with empty pockets, and had even been able to discover a declining war morale in death by misadventure. He thanked God for air raids and food queues because they brought the war home to civilians, and he was never tired of asserting that he lived on half the voluntary rations scale, did harder work, felt ten years younger, and a hundred times more virtuous, in consequence.
Unlike The Moon Rock, The Shrieking Pit is a pacy read, atmospheric without being heavy-handed, and has a satisfactory – if rather abrupt – resolution. No codas for Rees, it seems. Anyway, it’s on Project Gutenburg so why not give it a try?
Aurealis: There’s a lot of entertainment in this story of crime and detection from an earlier era, reminding us of the competence and cleverness of the successful detective novelists not named ‘Arthur Conan Doyle’ who were writing in the later part of the Sherlock Holmes era.