Friday, March 1, 2013

Murder Mystery at South Foreland

"St Margaret's Bay ... lies a little to the northward of the South Foreland Lighthouse, that notable landmark with which every cross-Channel passenger is familiar ..."

And here is that 'notable' landmark, atop the White Cliffs of Dover, taken earlier this year from a cross-Channel ferry.

Those words were written by J.S. Fletcher (1863-1935) a murder mystery writer from the 'Golden Age of Detective Fiction' (1920s and 30s). A Yorkshireman by birth, he first studied law before becoming a journalist, poet and historical novelist. Over his long career he wrote an outrageous 237 books! He was a hugely popular, successful writer in his time, but I bet you've never heard of him. Even in his native Yorkshire he's virtually unknown and isn't even listed on the Wikipedia page of writers from Yorkshire. That should be rectified.

Picture from gadetection

I'd never heard of J.S. Fletcher either, until I came across a book by chance, whilst surfing the internet. The South Foreland Murder was published in 1930 when Fletcher was in his late 60s and it's long out of print. But I knew the moment I saw it that I wanted to read it. Kent libraries didn't have a copy (shame) so I applied for an interlibrary loan. This is the only picture of an 'original' dust cover I can find.

Picture from Ebay seller pagesrevisited

Now, that's a dramatic dust cover but I'm not sure the artist had actually read the book. The murder weapon was, as I recall, a gun. Oops! The book above is the American edition by Alfred Knopf, Fletcher's US publisher. Many of the second hand books I found online were in the US. Happily, I didn't have to wait for my interlibrary loan because a kindly book fairy procured me my very own copy, published by London-based publisher Herbert Jenkins.

I won't say much about the plot in case you get to read it! But Dashiell Hammett, reviewing the book for the New York Evening Post in 1930, was rather dismissive. I suppose he read a lot of detective novels. (Mr Hammet is, you may recall, the creator of hard-nosed private detective Sam Spade in the The Maltese Falcon.)

"THE SOUTH FORELAND MURDER does not get away a bit from the later Fletcher formula ... ... ... The police and the solicitor, who tells the story, gather a little information here, a little there, slowly, tediously. Some of the reasons for the information's having been withheld are pretty inadequate. Presently - and too early for my taste - there is no mystery; there is simply a search for the guilty; then the guilty are found and there is a tragic ending, but no surprise."

I do tend to agree with Hammett. There's little characterisation (some of the lumpy characters made me cringe a bit) and yes, perhaps the unravelling of the mystery is a tad speedy, but for all that it's a ripping yarn. The plot being set in an area I know well was certainly a pull for me, and apart from the curious misspelling of Guston as Gurton, it was simple to follow the action using an old map.

But it wasn't just being a local murder mystery that made this book enjoyable. It was the sensuous pleasure of holding and reading a tired old hardback; the comfortable font size, the slightly tingly feel of the cloth binding, the 'old book' smell, the way the pages stayed open, the light weight, all these things were reminiscent of the old books I used to read as a child.

A bargain for 2/6!

President Woodrow Wilson was allegedly a J.S. Fletcher fan, having read The Middle Temple Murder while convalescing. The President's fulsome praise did sales no harm at all, especially in the US.

Picture from Calderdale Council

While trundling around the internet I also discovered that Fletcher wrote a short story about a lighthouse called 'The Lighthouse of the Shivering Sand'. Coincidentally it's recently been adapted for theatre by Nobby Dimon, founder of the North Country Theatre and is on tour now till early December. Drat it being so far away.

I beg one final brief diversion before I finish. Inside the front cover of my book is this label for Bricknell's Circulating Library.

This book was published in 1930, which seems rather a late date for a private circulating library. In the 1930s with the advent of the paperback, books became more widely and cheaply available to the general public. Amazingly Bricknell's of Bodmin is still trading 80 years later. They're still a family business and still have a shop in Fore Street; Bricknell's Stationery.

Who'd have thought an accidental find on Google would lead to such an interesting and satisfying few days, not only reading an old book but finding out so many things tangential to it (and starting a new blog).

South Foreland really does look the perfect place for a murder mystery

JS Fletcher 'The Middle Temple Murder'. 1920. Project Gutenberg Australia have an ebook here and it's free on Kindle here.
JS Fletcher 'The Lighthouse of Shivering Sands' Available as an ebook here on Project Gutenberg Australia)
Dashiell Hammett 'The Crime Wave' New York Evening Post, September 20th 1930 here
Don Herron 'Hammett - More Book Reviews' on 'Up & Down these Mean Streets' here
A brief biography of JS Fletcher here
Drew R Thomas 'The Golden Age: England 1918-1930here
Martin Wainwright 'The demented lighthouse of Yorkshire's busiest writer' The Guardian 24th September 2012 here
Editorial 'How fame eluded a man of many words' Yorkshire Post 8th May 2006 here.


  1. Enjoyed you piece, nice to see someone writing about Fletcher!

    1. Thanks. I'd never heard of him before being given the book!