The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

This is one of two Miles Burton novels currently available as British Library Crime Classics (the other is Death in the Tunnel). The reviews of this one seemed to be very mixed so I wasn’t expecting too much from it – and although I did find it enjoyable enough, it hasn’t become a favourite from the BLCC range.

Published in 1930, The Secret of High Eldersham seems at first to be a typical Golden Age murder mystery and High Eldersham itself to be a typical English village. We soon discover that neither of those things are true. The novel opens with the murder of Samuel Whitehead, the landlord of the Rose and Crown – and a newcomer to the village. Whitehead has been stabbed to death inside the inn and in the absence of any clues as to the motive or suspect, the local police call in Detective Inspector Young of Scotland Yard.

As Young begins to investigate, he can’t help feeling that there’s something sinister about High Eldersham. Why has it acquired such a strange reputation? Why do outsiders ‘never prosper’ in this quiet little East Anglian village? When, in the course of his inquiries, he notices something that makes him question what is really going on in High Eldersham, he summons his friend Desmond Merrion to come and help him uncover the truth.

This is apparently the first in a whole series of novels featuring the character of Desmond Merrion, amateur detective and former military intelligence officer. I found him quite bland in comparison with other fictional detectives, but in some ways that was probably a good thing as there was nothing annoying about him either – he just quietly gets on with the job of detecting! He also has a very likeable valet, Newport, who is as much a friend as a servant and who goes off and does some investigating of his own. It’s a very male-dominated novel, but there is one female character, Mavis Owerton, who has an important part to play in the story – beyond just providing a convenient love interest for several of the male characters.

Despite the murder which is committed at the beginning of the novel, this is much more of a thriller than a murder mystery and Merrion and Young become more concerned with discovering what the people of High Eldersham are trying to hide rather than finding out who killed Samuel Whitehead. I didn’t really have a problem with this as I do like either sort of crime novel, but I was still disappointed that the other elements of the story started to dominate to the point where we lost sight of the murder almost completely.

I found it very easy to guess what sort of crime was taking place in the village, but maybe it would have been less obvious to 1930s readers. There’s also another subplot, which has a hint of a supernatural element. I understood the relevance of this to the story and it does contribute to the eerie atmosphere of High Eldersham, which was already a creepy place due to its isolation and hostility to strangers, but I thought it was just one layer too many. There was too much time spent racing around on yachts and speedboats for my liking as well, although that’s probably just me – I’ve written before about my aversion to books about sailing!

I did like Miles Burton’s writing and I would read more of his books, but The Secret of High Eldersham wasn’t really for me. Death in the Tunnel sounds more appealing so maybe I’ll try that one.

9 thoughts on “The Secret of High Eldersham by Miles Burton

    • Helen says:

      Death in the Tunnel sounds like a more conventional murder mystery than this one, so I think I might enjoy it more. I did like Miles Burton’s writing so I’m happy to give him a second chance.

  1. whatmeread says:

    Hmm, this one sounds interesting to me, but I haven’t seen it around. I’ll have to look for it. Sometimes it’s true that these older books get way too complicated.

  2. Lark says:

    I have Death in the Tunnel! I snapped it up at a library book sale last year for a quarter. Of course, I haven’t read it yet. But it’s one of many from my TBR pile that I hope to read this year. 🙂

  3. Carmen says:

    Hmmm…It seems this novel didn’t quite work as the murder mystery it was meant to be, and more as a detective story overall. Too bad it didn’t work for you, but from what you say it seems that the story went on a tangent, or a few too many. To a reader who has read novels written in the same era, those flaws become glaring and inadmissible. (?) 😉

    • Helen says:

      I think I would have enjoyed the book more if it had been the murder mystery it seemed to be at first, or if it had been obvious from the beginning that it was going to be more of a thriller. It wasn’t a bad book, but one of my least favourites in this series so far.

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