#251: Death in the Tunnel (1936) by Miles Burton

Death in the TunnelWhile we can be thankful for real-life developments in forensic science that enable the speedier detection of criminals, there can be little argument that it was the death-knell of good detective fiction.  Dull Inspector Arnold and his genius amateur sidekick Desmond Merrion spend so much time combing through the minutiae of the physical and mental aspect of the crime in Death in the Tunnel, and come up with such entertaining possibilities while doing so, that a crime scene tech in one of those all-over white body suits could never be a fifth as much fun.  It makes me all the more appreciative of this kind of classic approach, knowing that this sort of book has seen its heyday pass.

It’s the Bodies form the Library conference this weekend, and there’s a section about John Rhode/Miles Burtons/Cecil Street, so this seemed suitable reading material in the run-up (whether it’s on the reading list I can’t remember, but it’s the only unread novel of his I had).  Sir Wilfred Saxonby is found dead in a semi-sealed (one door locked, one door not) train compartment, shot during the train’s passage through the eponymous tunnel.  An additional semi-impossible aspect here probably just about adds up to make this an impossible crime, but it’s only murder if Inspector Arnold can prove it, and so first suicide must be excepted.  The first half of the narrative is then established around some ‘how’ and ‘why’ themes, with Arnold and Merrion spinning a series of beautifully intricate implications that show this genre off at its best.

This section of the book is generally great, but undone a little by the sort of unlikely developments that doubtless came from Burton/Rhode/Street writing 140-some novels.  The fusty, unshowy, deliberate Arnold — anterior to this, nothing if not a wonk for detail, detail, detail — inexplicably expresses a complete disinterest in detail at the moment the key detail emerges, delaying the solution for another 30 pages.  In a way, this shows off Merrion’s deductive brilliance, but since two things happen to scream This is the solution, numbnuts and Arnold pays them not the slightest heed you have to wonder if Burton/Rhode/Street was simply buying a few more pages.  Still, the intervening section doesn’t drag, so there’s nothing really lost, but it reeks of an author working at high speed and to hell with character consistency.

Still, with this out of the way, the second half is then concerned with the matter of ‘who’, and becomes something quite spectacular.  Not that there’s a particularly ingenious dodge or forthright piece of clewing, it’s just massively impressive to see the patterns spun from the relatively simple setup that surrounds our victim; we have a daughter, a son-in-law, a son, a niece, a lawyer, a business manager, and a few other ancillary types, and from this we get a whirligig lesson in redoubtable detective plotting that absolutely commends this as one of the books chosen by the British Library to reprint.  Here Burton matches the rigour of his fellow British Library Crime Classics stablemate Freeman Wills Crofts for how comprehensively everything is taken apart and the combinations these various pieces are then fit into.

Three of the people in this circle are out of the country at the time of the murder, and so of course become automatic targets of suspicion (if you don’t see why this should be the case, well, welcome to GAD fiction!), but then there are the inexplicable actions of the victim himself, including summoning a taxi to carry him for what is usually a four-minute walk, and a confusion over guns, and two men who disappeared without ever really being known…truly, Arnold and Merrion have their work cut out in trying to get it all to work into a cohesive plot, and any reader with even a vague interest in permutations and the fitting of facts will have a field day here.  A lot of what is discussed is pure speculation, but it’s a joy to see it all so carefully filtered.

It lacks for a really brilliant clue, but for sheer verisimilitude this is pretty hard to beat.  As has been recorded here already, I’ve had mixed experiences with Burton to date, but this is a wonderful piece of plotting that shows him at the peak of the genre.  Come for the puzzle, for the masterful assimilation of disparate pieces, and leave character at the door; it’s a sacrifice worth making, believe me.  So, come on, BL, more Burton/Rhode/Street, please.  Sure, The Secret of High Eldersham is available, but I want even more again.  Maybe his collaboration with Carr, eh?  Eh??

star filledstar filledstar filledstar filledstars

See also:

Jason Half: But why should a mystery story be required to carry a Great Idea? Why must it have something to say? Detective stories are almost by definition entertainments, plots constructed by the writer to engage and beguile the reader. … Freeman Wills Crofts, whose plots often involve railways and the use of timetables to make and break suspects’ alibis, and Major John Street, who wrote dozens of books under the pseudonyms John Rhode and Miles Burton, were both prolific and popular. Their focus on the puzzle did not limit their contemporary appeal.

Colin (via Sergio) @ Tipping My Fedora: The big problem for me is the main detective, Arnold. He’s poorly defined, in my opinion, but the impression I did get was of a staid and stubborn type and, unforgivably in a detective, one who is not overburdened with intelligence. The bit of business with the railway tunnel is nicely done but not that hard to deduce how it was achieved. However, our intrepid investigators really struggle to see the solution, even when a massive clue is flung before them. When you start to feel the main investigator, from Scotland Yard no less, is essentially an obtuse bumpkin you know there are problems. 

~

I submit this book for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category Train.

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to last week’s The Secret Dancer because, hmm, how to put this…let’s go with ‘Overlapping Plots’.

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32 thoughts on “#251: Death in the Tunnel (1936) by Miles Burton

  1. Completely agree with this, although I’d have preferred the two halfs of the investigation – method then murderer – to be a little more combined. When I read this, it was one of a few Street books that’s had a very similar plot structure – Death At Breakfast, The Motor Rally Mystery – but he has got a much wider range than this. But Merrion and Arnold never really become that interesting…

    Oh, and I gather Fatal Descent is mostly Carr with Rhode helping out technically, rather than with the writing. If I remember, I’ll bring my copy along to Bodies and you can borrow it.

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    • “I gather Fatal Descent is mostly Carr with Rhode helping out technically, rather than with the writing.”
      Yes, yet it is strange that the name of John Rhode appears first !

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    • Haha, conversely I really liked how — by splitting the “how” and the “who” into separate halves — it was very different to so much of what I’ve read lately. I appreciated the clarity of each part, and how he didn’t seek to over-complicate things; oftentimes an author is undone by trying to cram waaaay too much into their writing, Street was clearly happy to take the questions as they came in this (and apparently many other) instance.

      Appreciate the offer of the loan — been trying to find that book for ages — but please don’t worry if you forget it…got plenty else to be wading through!

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    • Fatal Descent was a hard one for me to track down for a reasonable price. I ended up getting a Dover Mystery Classics edition from 1987. I’m tempted to read this one soon, and it will be my first experience with Rhode/Burtons/Street.

      Speaking of Carr, I’m happy to see The Unicorn Murders coming up next week. That is a really weird title, I’ll be curious to see what JJ thinks of it. One of Carr’s better puzzles, yet buried in a spy-caper.

      As for Death in the Tunnel, this one is definitely going on my purchase list. I like the idea of the puzzles being solved in two halves, as that means that I get the rewards more spaced out in the book rather than having to wait until the end. The Corpse in the Waxworks is an example of this, where the “how” is solved by mid-story, followed by a mind blowing “who” at the end of the book.

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      • The fact that Carr revisited the whole spy milieu again the following year with The Punch and Judy Murders — a wonderful, wonderful book — makes me suspect that this might be a sort of apprentice work to that, one where he ironed out a few of the notions of how and why he wished to use that idea. I’d say that the impossibility really intigues me here, but hat’s true of any impossible crime in any book ever, so that doesn’t really mean anything…

        I’m with you on revelations throughout a text, too. Sometimes so much depends on how well an idea is explored that lumping it all at the end feels like too much jeopardy: How many balls are they going to drop?!??! Being expected to relax and enjoy something when there’s a very real risk that it will be spoiled in the closing 15 pages alsmot feels like too great an expectation somtimes. But, well, more on that this weekend…

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        • Ooh, then I shall look forward to the weekend.

          I started Rim of the Pit recently, and I really enjoyed the whole chapter where they debunk a number of the tricks in the seance. In a way, the reader is getting some solutions to the puzzle in like the fourth chapter of the book. That’s the way that you keep a story moving.

          The Red Widow Murders is another great example, with the horrifying solution to the man calling out every 15 minutes being explained midway through the book. Of course, that was the only solution in that story that really satisfied…

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        • The how and why of that aspect of Red Widow is bonkers clever, one of those solutions that fits the setup inch-perfectly. I like the how of the murder, but it reminds me a little of Death in Five Boxes in that, sure, it’s kinda fair but, well, it’s also not really fair at all. Look, as a murderer I’d be delighted if I came up with that way of dispatching of someone…but as a reader, I can’t help but feel a little more could have been done with it.

          But I’ll stop at that, before I start talking about The Crooked Hinge…

          Rim is full of so much cleverness; a fair chnk is left until the end, but it’s great to see how inelligently Talbot applies himself early on. Gives one hope that everything will turn out okkay in the end. I need to get to rereaing it soon, actually, so that the intended Spoiler Warning post can go ahead as planned. Gah! So many books…!

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  2. Thanks for the review – I enjoyed this one in terms of the puzzle, but towards the end it felt somewhat long-drawn… I, too, hope that more Rhode/ Burton entries make their way into the ‘British Library Crime Classics’. 😀

    P.S. I’ve only heard less-than-positive things about ‘Fatal Descent’. But surely the combination of Rhode and Carr cannot go wrong…?

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    • There is the chance that people may get a little wearied with all the permutations towards the end, I agree, but I think the narrative is brisk enough that it shouldn’t affect too great a proportion of anyone who’s enjoying themselves.

      And, hey, I’d hope a Carr/Rhode collaboration couldn’t fail, but then I’ve picked up a number of books I was convinced would be excellent and proved wrong…nothing is certain! Except death, obviously. Death stalks us all.

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      • Personally I found “Drop to his Death” to be just ghastly. It’s like Carr but with none of the verve, or elan — no creepy atmosphere, no vivid characterization. Just a boring mechanical trick that it took me a couple of tries to make sure that I didn’t care if I understood it or not, a bunch of inadequately drawn characters including a cardboard detective, and a rather unbelievable premise. I blame Rhode’s influence; it’s like Carr on heavy tranquilizers, or where someone has paralyzed his writing ability temporarily.

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    • Yes I had the feeling this one would be up your street — boom-cha!!

      I think Arnold is possibly as dull as French; actually, I think Arnold might be duller on account of how much of an arse he comes across when Burton allows him to express something approaching personality. The difference is how they go about things: Burton tells us here at one point that a certain object hails from a certain country, whereas Crofts and French would spend three chapters establishing that for themselves. That’s not strictly fair — Crofts was a great one for showing how a police force worked together — but there’s a much more forensic level of care in the French books, which, yeah, ain’t to everyone’s taste,

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  3. It’s a good setup and the plotting is solid but I had a really hard time getting past the colorless aspect of Arnold, he remains essentially a cipher for me. And then there’s his pigheadedness! Obviously, this is calculated to make Merrion look even better, but still…

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    • A Smell of Smoke is even worse in that regard — Arnold sees there’s been a murder and immediately decides it’s beyond him, calls in Merrion who does…well, basically nothing. Then it ends.

      At least there’s some reasoning and deduction involved here. Though, yeah, Merrion is a little off the pace of other genius amateurs, I can’t help but feel…

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      • I’d really need to read more by the author but on the evidence so far Merrion, while not objectionable, could only be termed a “genius amateur” due to his friendship with a dolt like Arnold. But I agree that detecting is indeed done, although some of that business with the cheques towards the end did wear me down.

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        • I’m hoping to see more Burton/Rhode books mae available on the back of the popularity of these titles…it’s an interesting pair, since they apparently differ quite significantly in tone and style, with Eldersham reportedly being more of a thriller (citation needed), Maybe it was a roll of the dice to see which type of book would be more popular? Hmmm, either way, let’s hope more follow.

          The cheque thing was where it got its most dull Croftian, no doubt, with none of Crofts’ sly wit and suddenly appearing out of nowhere to discuss permutations and combinations. That’s where I can see people falling off the wagon if they’re feeling a bit uncertain, even if I personally had no problem with it. One day I’m hoping to solve some baffling circumstance by equal application of rigour…a man can dream…

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        • I wouldn’t mind reading some more either as I found both good and bad things in the book, and that usually means further exploration is called for.

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  4. Personally I’d prefer to see more of the John Rhode books coming back into print rather than the Miles Burtons. Dr Priestley is a much more interesting character. I will probably pick up a copy of DEATH IN THE TUNNEL anyway – you make it sound pretty tempting.

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    • I’m yet to read any Rhode, as it happens — everything that’s available at present is Burton, and I was given High Eldersham in my goody bag at the British Library yesterday to complete the set. Tony Medawar said in his talk on Street that more titles would be forthcoming in the months ahead, but you’ll need someone better versed than I if you want to know whether they’re Burton or Rhode titles (I’m assuming they’re not Waye ones…).

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      • I’m yet to read any Rhode, as it happens — everything that’s available at present is Burton,

        I’ve managed to find quite a few of the Rhodes second-hand, and not too expensive. Dr Priestley is smarter than Merrion and I like irascible detectives. Mind you, I thoroughly enjoyed the one Burton I’ve read so far.

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