Winston Graham, a prolific and much respected writer in his day, is probably best remembered for the Cornwall-set historical novels in the Poldark series, which began in 1945 with Ross Poldark. Poldark was one of the biggest things on British TV in the 70s (and a new series is due to begin this year). However, Graham was also a thriller writer and won the first ever CWA Gold Dagger award (then known as the Crossed Red Herrings) for The Little Walls in 1955.
When my brother committed suicide I was in California so I wasn’t at either the inquest or the funeral. It was nearly two weeks before I could get away, and then I flew back and made straight for Dorking, where the telegram had come from. But when I got there the house was closed and a neighbour said Grace was staying with my eldest brother Arnold in Wolverhampton. So I spent a night in London and drove up by car the following day.
So, flatly, begins the story of Philip Turner, who has travelled home after his older brother’s body is fished out of a canal in the Little Walls, Amsterdam’s red light district.
Philip simply cannot believe his big brother killed himself. Grevil was a brilliant mind, a nuclear physicist who for ethical reasons gave up a stellar career working on the atomic bomb to become an archeologist. Suicide just doesn’t make sense, even when he finds out Grevil had what seems to be a Dear John letter from a woman named Leonie in his pocket.
‘Everything points to your brother having killed himself as a result of this unfortunate love affair which had gone awry.’
I came back from the window. ‘Everything points to it, except Grevil’s character.’
Philip resolves to investigate the death for himself. There are two leads to follow up in Amsterdam: The mysterious Leonie, and Grevil’s travelling companion, a man named Buckingham. Both have disappeared.
Enlisting the help of Martin Coxon, a roguish adventurer who the police think may be able to trace Buckingham, Philip travels over to Holland to meet with the local police and interview the prostitute who witnessed the suicide. Tholen, the Amsterdam detective, is a bit of a star:
Tholen, who looked like a working farmer, ate at a great rate and smoked between mouthfuls. After he had drawn in the smoke seemed to come out of everywhere, nose, mouth, ears, even, you imagined, his pockets.
Philip leans heavily on Coxon in Amsterdam, especially when interviewing the prostitute-witness leads to an unpleasant encounter with a local gangster:
I reflected that he was the type that perhaps only the English breed truly – the man who will fight a modern guerilla campaign on the principles of Hannibal or lead a last–ditch boarding party with a volume of Livy in his pocket.
And in fact it is one of Coxon’s underworld contacts who provides information on Leonie Winter, an English woman staying in Capri. The action moves south to Italy, where Philip trades on his skills as an artist to infiltrate the slightly bohemian group which includes Leonie.
The plot thickens at this point, as Philip falls in love with Leonie almost immediately – shaking his belief that his brother didn’t commit suicide. Philip can just about picture killing himself over Leonie, so maybe Grevil actually did (Philip’s determination to prove Grevil didn’t commit suicide turns out more about proving Philip couldn’t). And meanwhile, is Buckingham one of Leonie’s circle of friends and acquaintances?
The Capri segment of The Little Walls becomes a Mary Stewart-style romantic suspense story, with a similar English-in-the-Med setting and the same brooding feeling that nobody can be trusted, least of all the person you fancy. There is a lot of soul-searching, even in the midst of the eventual violent conclusion. Overall, a solid and fairly realistic thriller with what you might call a happy ending. It’s complicated…
Both of these reviews contain horrific spoilers.
Kirkus Reviews: Winston Graham, who has alternated some superior suspense stories with his Cornwall tetralogy, is again at his best in this form of entertainment- a drama which is sybilline and svelte.
Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two: The book did have many passages of astute perception about life, aphoristic, disillusioned, to my mind accurate, and we experience believably hard situations and variously treacherous people in amoral circumstances of their own creation that are not resolved. I was amused by the erudite reading (which coheres with my own) of his characters. It’s feminist: one of the witnesses to the suicide-murder (somehow I wasn’t quite convinced at the close it was suicide) is a prostitute whose pimp is a man who violently beats her (par for the course we are to understand). There are casual society hostesses and men who float through life as their hangers-on. There is even a post-colonial perspective at least adumbrated (the book was published 1955). The novel thrives on suspense rather than anything thrilling or uncanny-gothic.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.