The British Library are doing a great job of bringing the work of obscure or long-forgotten authors back into print with their Crime Classics series and William Fryer Harvey is another. Better known for his horror stories such as The Beast with Five Fingers and August Heat, he also wrote a crime novel, The Mysterious Mr Badman, which was originally published in 1934. I was immediately drawn to this book not just by the title, but also the subtitle, A Yorkshire Bibliomystery!
As Martin Edwards points out in the introduction, this must be the only crime novel with a blanket manufacturer as the protagonist. His name is Athelstan Digby and as the novel opens he is visiting his nephew in the Yorkshire village of Keldstone. One day he offers to take charge of the village bookshop so the bookseller and his wife can go to a funeral. Digby is expecting a quiet, uneventful afternoon so he is amazed when three men separately enter the shop within the space of a few hours, all asking for a copy of the same book: Bunyan’s Life and Death of Mr Badman. Digby is unable to find this book on the shelves, but when a boy arrives at the shop later that day with a pile of old books to sell – including Mr Badman – he becomes even more suspicious. What is going on – and why is that particular book so important?
This is a short novel, so I won’t go into the plot in much more detail…except to say that it’s great fun. There are murders, incriminating letters, political conspiracies, a touch of romance and a lot of humour! With character names like Athelstan Digby, Euphemia Upstart, Olaf Wake and Kitchener Lilywhite, you can see that it’s not a book to be taken entirely seriously, but at the same time it’s a clever, interesting and well written novel and one of the most enjoyable I’ve read from the British Library Crime Classics series for a while. Just be aware that it’s more of a thriller than a conventional detective novel; the mystery is actually solved quite early in the book and the significance of Mr Badman and the identity of the villain are revealed much sooner than you would expect. The fun is in watching Digby team up with his nephew Jim Pickering and Jim’s love interest Diana Conyers to try to decide what they should do with the information they’ve obtained.
As always when I read mysteries written in this period, I was struck by not only how much more difficult some aspects of crime-solving were in those days (no internet, no DNA testing) but also how much easier other aspects were. It was far simpler to trace a particular car when there were so few of them on the roads and everyone would notice an unfamiliar one driving through their village. I really enjoyed watching Digby, Jim and Diana investigate the mystery using the methods available to them in the 1930s, even if they occasionally walk straight into traps that are quite obvious to anyone who reads a lot of Golden Age crime fiction! I also loved the Yorkshire setting, although not all of the novel is set there.
Although, as I’ve said, Harvey is better known as a horror writer, it seems that the character of Digby previously appeared in a book of short stories, The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby. I hope that one will become available as a BLCC book soon too.