‘Death Walks in Eastrepps’ by Francis Beeding (pseudonym for Hilary St. George Saunders and John Palmer)
This classic British crime thriller has multiple ingredients: a double identity, an illicit love affair, extortion, a soaring count of gory murders, and an extended courtroom drama. Best of all, it has a twist in the tail that took this long-time mystery reader completely by surprise.
Set in an archetypal Norfolk seaside resort around 1930, Death Walks in Eastrepps was pronounced by crime fiction aficionado Vincent Starret as one of the ten greatest detective novels of all time. While in my opinion it’s not at that level at all, and today appears rather dated, it is nevertheless an enjoyable read. Though neither deep nor particularly memorable, it is a very clever piece of plotting.
Robert Eldridge is a man with a dark secret in his past: he is really James Selby, who swindled hundreds of investors of their life savings. After long years self-exiled in South America he has returned to England and is now living in Eastrepps under the false name of a deceased friend, Robert Eldridge. Some of the investors whom he swindled also live in Eastrepps, in financially straightened circumstances due to him.
Eldridge is now a wealthy man, though he has not paid back the money he owes his investors as this would mean revealing his identity. In any case, he has put his past behind him, reformed his character, and fallen in love. The object of his affections is Margaret Withers, a young married woman unable to obtain a divorce from her husband. The dated element here (though it adds to the novel’s period charm) is that the plot hangs on an example of pre-War social propriety that no longer exists. Namely, Eldridge must go to elaborate lengths, including long train journeys, covert entrances and exits at railway stations, and night-time walks through heavily wooded areas, to keep his affair with Margaret secret.
WARNING: SPOILERS FROM HERE ON. DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU WISH TO ENJOY THIS BOOK YOURSELF.
These complex arrangements are what make it so easy for someone — the real murderer — to frame Robert Eldridge.
To cut a long story short, he is framed for half a dozen ghoulish murders that have taken place in and around the very wooded areas that he secretly frequents. Eventually he is spotted in Eastrepps one night that he claims to have spent in London, by an inquisitive newspaper reporter, Ferris, who sounds out Eldridge over these incongruities. Naturally, Ferris then becomes the next murder victim. Eldridge is arrested close by and charged with all the murders. Things look very bad for him indeed.
The last quarter of the book is a long courtroom drama. I was expecting the usual things: a new witness appearing from nowhere, the defence counsel pulling off a Perry Mason, etc., but to my surprise Eldridge is duly found guilty and goes to the gallows, despite the fact that we know he is innocent.
His lover Margaret, now divorced and socially shamed, moves to London, where the young Eastrepps policeman, Sgt. Ruddock, who sensationally broke the case has joined Scotland Yard and been promoted. Margaret visits the now Superintendent Ruddock, determined to have one last review of the case. Ruddock shows her the case file and allows her to examine it. While doing so she notices that an incriminating document — a list of investors with the murder victims underlined, found in Eldridge’s desk by Ruddock himself — has been typed on the same distinctive and obviously elderly typewriter as the ex-Sgt. Ruddock’s personal case report.
She says nothing and leaves but Ruddock has noticed her strange behaviour, realises that she has discovered a damning clue, and follows her to her flat. Fortunately she phones for help and a trusted detective, Inspector Wilkins, and her defence lawyer Sir Henry Grey rush to her flat, rescuing her in the nick of time. Ruddock, caught red-handed trying to murder Margaret, makes a full confession: he knew about Eldridge’s swindling past and set him up; the ambitious young policeman’s motive was to further his own promotion to higher rank in the police.
END OF SPOILERS.
I read quite a lot of detective fiction and didn’t see the denouement coming at all. ‘Beeding’ (Hilary St. George Saunders and John Palmer) had me well fooled. I can appreciate why this was an extremely popular novel in its day, as it must have been quite edgy and groundbreaking back in the 1930′s. Now it is more quaint than edgy, but little the worse for that. Warmly recommended.