I was looking for something to read that was easy, fun and entertaining, and this one fit the bill. It
reminded me of a B-movie version of Sherlock Holmes. Almost grotesque, in fact. The elements are there but not quite as sharp and sophisticated. In fact, it
really is not sophisticated at all. Nor is it a great mystery. I'm not real good at figuring out whodunit, but I did get this one. Agatha Christie
groupies would not be impressed.
However, there were two things about Professor John Stubbs (Sherlock) and Max Boyle (Watson) to which I could relate. They were professional botanists and addicted bibliophiles. In fact, the story begins as Boyle is hitting all the bookshops in search of particular books but ending up buying mountains of them. HA! Sounds like me in the Goodwill stores.
R.T. Campbell was the pseudonym for Ruthven (pronounced Riven) Campbell Todd. He was best known as a "poet and leading authority on the printing techniques of William Blake" according to the Foreword of this Dover edition. He also wrote a lot of children's books, and a handful of mysteries (twelve, it was later determined) under the name R.T. Campbell, but some were never published. This quote is from the Foreword:
This uncertainty has since been resolved, and it is now known that only eight novels were published, although Todd probably wrote four more. The missing novels were repeatedly advertised by Westhouse as "forthcoming," but they never forthcame because in 1948 Westhouse went into liquidation.
The short Wikipedia page supplies a short biography and a quite long bibliography for Todd. While it seems he was a prolific writer, his personal life was much less successful. Born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1914, he died in Galilea, Spain in 1978. Wikipedia says:
He was educated at Dalhousie Preparatory School, Fettes College and Edinburgh College of Art. His short spell at art college convinced him that he had no creative talent as an artist and he thereafter pursued his ambition to become a poet and writer. At Fettes and art college he had proved to be a rebellious teenager and he left college prematurely to be sent by his parents to work for two years as an agricultural labourer on the Isle of Mull. He then returned to Edinburgh to begin a career in copy-writing and journalism, while writing poetry and novels. He left Edinburgh for London in 1935.
He moved to the United States in 1947, and remained there for twelve years, becoming a U.S. citizen. He moved to
Mallorca in 1960, although the Dover edition states he was only visiting Robert Graves. He became seriously ill with pleurisy and pneumonia, from which
he recovered, but the treatment costs were so high he hadn't enough money to return to the United States. Plus the fact that he was an alcoholic since a
teenager and was a chain smoker probably did not contribute to a life filled with health, either physically or psychologically. He also went through three
marriages and divorces. He died of emphysema. Why do so many of these gifted artists have lives filled with such self-abuse?
As I stated above, this is not a great mystery, but it sure was fun to read. As is my policy with mysteries, I won't give away too much, and since it is a short book and a quick read, this review will be likewise. Dover, by the way carries four of his mysteries, of which I own three and plan to purchase the fourth. They also offer four of his Space Cat books for children which are WAAAY overpriced for my budget—something I almost never say about Dover books, but apparently these are rather rare. We'll see. I seem to have a talent for acquiring lots of Dover coupons.
Here is the humorous description of Professor John Stubbs, the botanist and amateur detective who gets involved whether he's needed or not, also found in the Foreword of this edition.
The blurb on the dust jacket of his debut appearance in Unholy Dying tells us Stubbs is "an explosive and fallible character in the long English tradition of engaging comic figures. Professor Stubbs sets out to unravel the crime with considerable energy and the tact of a herd of elephants.
Stubbs is corpulent, mustachioed, opinionated, smokes a pipe filled with evil-smelling tobacco, and constantly swills beer from a quart mug in order to overcome his susceptibility to "dehydration." He cheerfully accuses innocent people of murder and lumbers on, unabashed, to find the true culprit. His "Watson" for most of the books is Max Boyle, with whom he has an engagingly prickly relationship, as he does with his sparring partner Inspector Reginald Bishop of Scotland Yard.
Those two paragraphs provide a helpful background for those who have not read any of Campbell's mysteries. I
want to add that Stubbs also drives a Bentley, and it seems, by his driving habits, he is using it more as a weapon than a car! But the story begins as
Boyle, who is also a botanist, and Stubbs' assistant is looking forward to a much-needed vacation on the Isles of Scilly.
He is much younger than Stubbs, and has rooms in the upstairs of Stubbs' house. But now, he is enjoying making the rounds to the local booksellers. He has left his bundle at Low's while he ventures into a shop near London's Tottenham Court Road. He has always been satisfied with the business practice of Allan Leslie, the old man who owns the shop, and has often found surprises there. Unfortunately, this time the surprise has nothing to do with books. The story, by the way is in the first person, told by Boyle.
As he is creating another pile which he plans to purchase, he becomes aware that he smells gas. There is no one around, and he knows there is a gas burner in the back room because he's seen Leslie light it and put a kettle on. He finds it even more surprising that the door is bolted from the outside. Upon opening it, he sees two dead bodies on the floor. One is Leslie, and the other a man by the name of Cecil Baird. And he is unable to turn the gas off. He calls the police.
Then he decides he better also call Chief Inspector Reginald Bishop at Scotland Yard.
"I say, Bishop," I said, " I seem to have stumbled into a bit more death."
His voice was weary as he answered me, "You would. What is it this time?"
The police arrive, then Bishop.
A figure like a large and well-fed Persian cat suddenly materialized in the door of the shop. It was Chief Inspector Bishop. Beneath a black homburg his eyes looked weary. He would have scowled at me but it would have required too much energy.
"Hullo, Max," he said slowly, "I see you're in trouble again. If I had my way both you and the Professor would be serving life sentences. That would be the only way to keep you out of mischief. Though," his voice was tired, "I suppose that even on Dartmoor the Professor would find some trouble to run into."
Now, the attitude of the Professor is totally opposite. He too, soon arrives, unannounced and uninvited, or so Boyle thinks. And he is always referred to as "the old man."
"Ullo, Max," he boomed cheerfully, findin' more bodies for me to play wi,' eh? That's the boy."
"How the hell, why the likewise did you get here or are you here?" I howled in a muddled way.
He pursed his lips and tried to look mysterious, but saw that I was really annoyed.
"Oh," his voice was as airy as Hyde Park, "the Chief Inspector who always has me best interests at heart, rang me up an' told me that ye'd been getting' into a bit o' trouble, so I came rushin' along as fast as I could to get ye out o' it. I got a kindly character. That's me trouble. I can't let me assistant get into trouble wi' out tryin' to help him out o' it."
In any case, they make an interesting discovery. The gas has shut off by itself, and the reason Max couldn't
turn it off is that the turn-cock was not only rusted, but had not been used for a long time. Max swore he had seen Leslie use the burner and he was right. They
find a meter on the wall, and all it required was a penny to turn on the gas, and when the penny's worth was used up, it shut off. But further investigation
reveals that both men had been hit on the back of the head. It was the blow to the head that killed Leslie, not the gas, but Cecil Baird had not been dead
when the gas was turned on.
There is one more especially important character here, and that is the elderly niece of Leslie. Her name is Miss Alice Wright, and she also kept house for him.
The shop was entered by a small woman of about seventy. She could not have been any older, but her clothes belonged to a much earlier date. She wore a sort of turban hat pinned to the mathematical crown of her head. This hat was a remarkable piece of architecture. It seemed to have been the recipient of not only a harvest offering, but of the morgue of the ornithological department of the Zoo—feathers of lovebirds and wings of ortlans disported themselves among bunches of artificial wheat, cherries and various flowers that never were on wayside or in woodland.
Of course, all Max wants to do is get himself ready for his vacation. He ties the bundle of books he has chosen
and puts his name on them, so that he can purchase them from whoever is in charge of Leslie's estate. But, of course, his vacation is not to be.
The three begin their investigation, and compile a list of people who did business with Leslie on a regular basis. It did not take them long to discover that Leslie was not the innocent man that he appeared to be. He was not only dealing in obscene books, but in stolen ones, too. And further investigation leads them to the fact that Cecil Baird was a blackmailer, and knew nasty secrets about Leslie and about his associates.
One by one we go through the list of men, and they all seem like they could be guilty, have no alibis as to where they were when the murder took place, and are less than enthusiastic about cooperating with the police.
Anyways, I'll leave it at that. This could hardly be called a thriller, I must say. It's not like there's a killer on the loose, so there is not that page-turning tension throughout that you find in other writers who specialize in murder-mysteries. Still, it is so entertaining and so easy to read, that you won't want to put it down once you pick it up. I'm looking forward to reading his other books.
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