Another trip to the vaults of the British Library Crime Classics discloses this decidedly nonclassic story of gangsters, espionage, and murder most frequent in 1940 London.
The Blitz has yet to commence, but blackouts keep the streets of Soho mostly empty at night. So it’s a doubly unusual event when DI Patrick Aloysius McCarthy, who lives right around the corner from the patch he works, hears a scream pierce the neighborhood past midnight, not long after he’s parted from Sir William Haynes, the Assistant Commissioner. A quick search of the most likely source reveals a stiletto and a woman’s handkerchief, both soaked in blood, but no corpse. But that’s the last time in this tale, originally published in 1940, when there’s a shortage of dead bodies. Even before the CID discovers the remains of Madame Rohner, the mysterious fortuneteller who was actually a man, McCarthy stumbles across the body of PC Harper, whose life was sacrificed to the killer’s escape. More violent deaths will follow, and although it’s not entirely certain whether they’re the work of spies trying to pass wartime secrets to Germany or locally grown gangsters like Floriello Mascagni and Mo Eberstein, that’s about the only mystery on offer here. The pace is rapid, the dialogue functional, and the helter-skelter plotting evidently designed to encourage page turning rather than reflection. Despite the pressures of the war, many readers will surely wax nostalgic for Brandon’s morally simpler world, unspoiled by any trace of such brainy contemporaries as Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.
Given the proportions of the main ingredients—unbridled criminal mayhem, stolid and limited detection, striking but disposable characters, a smidgen of mysterymongering—in the stew he’s served, Brandon’s matter-of-fact hero may represent a missing link between Bulldog Drummond and Jack Reacher.