Way back in the Fun Times – early 2019, to be exact – I stumbled (almost literally) upon a new/old author (for me) named Francis Beeding in my favorite local bookstore, bought and read the book, Murdered One by One, and subsequently shared my thoughts in high epistolary style with my buddy, Bev Hankin, who writes the blog My Reader’s Block. What a joyful back-and-forth we had, and we concluded it with the hope that we might return together someday to explore Beeding’s most famous title, Death Walks in Eastrepps (1931).
Well, life intrudes and plans change! I hope Bev and I will find another book to review in partnership very soon; meanwhile, my book club has assigned Eastrepps as our March entry, and prior to our meeting this very afternoon/evening (depending on which side of the ocean you butter your bread), I lay my thoughts down here. What I remembered about my last taste of Beeding was a delightful romp, a serial killer’s spree marked by a quick pace and excellent characters, brimming with humor, that only lets you down slightly at the end, since – at least for Bev and me – the solution was all too easy to spot. Would Death Walks in Eastrepps repeat the pleasures of the past and maybe add a better hidden killer to the mix?
If my first taste of Beeding smacked of Malice Domestic, there’s something more epic about the series of murders that besiege the seaside vacation town of Eastrepps. Beeding does an excellent job of weaving through the events on every level, showing their effect on the town as a whole, the wide assortment of individuals who inhabit Eastrepps, the varied members of the police charged with solving the case, the press who cover the work of a serial killer dubbed by one ambitious journalist as The Evil, all the way to the halls of Parliament, where a member’s career is all but ruined by the case.
First and foremost, I guess, we have here a police procedural, and if my objections to Murdered: One by One included a certain blandness around the pair of coppers investigating those crimes, here we have half a dozen varied gentlemen of the law, ranging from the local constabulary to the top heirarchy of Scotland Yard. Beeding generates a great deal of interest, humor and suspense simply from the interactions of all these men, from the inept Station-Sergeant of Eastrepps, Inspector Protheroe, who is saddled with the ruthlessly efficient Sergeant Ruddock, to their Napoleonic Chief Constable, Sir Jefferson Cobb, up to the Yard team that is called in as the murders multiply. The cover of the book calls this “An Inspector Wilkins Mystery,” and Wilkins reminds me of Inspector Martin from the last book: very pleasant, as efficient as he is lacking in ego, and a little dull. In the end, as in the last book, there is no one specific person who solves the case, and I wonder if this whole method of resolution was something that Beeding favored.
As interesting as the investigation is, once again Beeding treats us to a panoply of wonderful characters, some of them appearing only briefly as human prisms for some important action of evidence. Much of the civilian action revolves around Mr. Robert Eldridge, a wealthy London businessman with layer after layer of secrets, which Beeding starts dropping almost immediately, and yet I’m loath to reveal too much about the details here. Suffice it to say, much of Eldridge’s subterfuge involves many of the citizens of Eastrepps and could very well be the reason that people start getting murdered every Wednesday night at 10:30pm.
The scenes revolving around the villagers are equally packed with humor and suspense, and occasionally pathos, as we have come to know, even briefly, most of the victims. Ultimately, a person is arrested for the crimes, and the books switches to a courtroom drama, where we meet a whole slew of new folks – clerks, jurors, and audience members – who enliven the proceedings considerably. Sometimes we get just a glimpse of a person in order to see a familiar character through a different lens, and some of these cameos are so much fun that I want to read a larger story featuring some of these people:
“Mr. Bembridge, author of The Stolen Casket and other plays, looked with interest at the sharp, handsome face of the man in the box. One could hardly help rather admiring the fellow . . . ‘Vanity’, said Mr. Bembridge to himself. All these criminals are alike. One day he would write a book about it – crime and conceit . . . by that sin the angels fell. He sat back in his seat. The benches of the City Fathers were hard, and this was the fifth day of the trial. It would, he supposed, be one of the really famous ones, but frankly it has been rather disappointing. For a man of the theater these trials at the old Bailey lacked form and finish. There were effective moments. One could pick up a useful thing or two. The cross examination of the man’s mistress has been not so bad – not, of course, good enough, as it stood, for the stage, but with a little polishing and a good deal of compression it would pass muster.”
As for the solution, it wasn’t until sometime during the trial that I really began to have my suspicions, and although they were proven correct, I can’t lay claim to any particular cleverness here. It’s a good solution, no way as easy to spot as my last experience with Beeding proved to be. I don’t think this author was particularly given to real fair play: while the final summation makes total sense, a few facts have been withheld from us so as to make confirmation of the killer’s identity pretty much impossible. Don’t let this detract from a charming read.
Death Walks in Eastrepps appeared the same year as another serial-killer-in-a-village mystery, Philip McDonald’s Murder Gone Mad. All I remember about the latter is that the killer’s identity was interesting, but the rest was not so captivating. And then, of course, the 30’s saw no less than three serial killer mysteries from Agatha Christie, two of them counting among the best in the canon. The ABC Murders (1936) has something of a sense of the epic, as the killer strikes in villages and towns across England; however, the focus remains chiefly on Hercule Poirot, with the police force remaining ineffective and unmemorable. And the motive for the killing spree takes us into another category altogether.
In 1939, Christie published Murder Is Easy and And Then There Were None. The latter stands by itself as a brilliant and dark thriller. Murder Is Easy is more problematic: I love the book in many ways, from its fabulous opening hook on a train to the dramatic reveal of a killer’s plot at the end; plus, the book contains one of my favorite murder methods of all time!! But the middle sags because the villagers never really come to life as more than a series of sketchily drawn red herrings.
In contrast, one of Beeding’s strengths is his ability to bring even the tiniest character to life. We rarely see inside the head of a character in Murder Is Easy, but we hear the thoughts of just about everyone walking about Eastrepps. It’s a wonderful way to move a story forward and make its population memorable. I’m sad to keep hearing hints that very few of Beedings other novels are worthy of our time or attention. And so, like my buddy Kate in her review of this, I look to my fellow mystery readers for suggestions as to what other titles by this author might be worth tracking down. I know The Norwich Victims was also re-published by Arcturus, and not much else is easily (or cheaply) tracked down. Any ideas, folks???