English newspaperman R. A. J. Walling (1869-1949) took to crime writing very late, being nearly sixty when his first mystery was published. For the next twenty years he averaged better than a book a year. As a crime writer his reputation rests mainly on his twenty-two Philip Tolefree novels. The Five Suspects was the sixth of the Tolefree books, appearing in 1935.
Philip Tolefree is a private enquiry agent although one gets the impression that being a detective is more of a hobby than a means to earn a living. He is clearly a well-educated man and his languid manner points to an upper-class background. His lack of interest in money suggests that he is not a man who needs to concern himself greatly about such sordid details.
Tolefree is prepared to co-operate with the police when it suits him but it also not averse to keeping important pieces of evidence to himself. He has nothing against the police although he has no great regard for their abilities as detectives.
Tolefree is generally assisted by his friend Farrar, a ship-broker who enjoys dabbling in crime-solving.
The Five Suspects brings Philip Tolefree to the town of Farchester. We can assume that Farchester is somewhere in the West Country. That’s where Walling spent his entire life and it provides the setting for most of his mystery novels. Tolefree in this instance is actually on hand before any crime has been committed. The death of a Miss Minching, a middle-aged lady with whom Tolefree had been slightly acquainted and for whom he had considerable esteem has brought him to Farchester for her funeral. On a Saturday afternoon he happens to be in the office of the elderly local solicitor Mr Spinks. Mr Spinks is the executor of Miss Minching’s estate and for some mysterious reason of his own he has asked a number of people to meet him in his office on that afternoon, his manner suggesting that he has discovered something about Miss Minching’s estate that is troubling him. The nature of his concern is destined to remain mysterious since Mr Spinks is not seen alive after that afternoon.
On the following Monday morning Philip Tolefree is the one who discovers the body of the unfortunate Mr Spinks, who had apparently drowned after falling into the canal near his office. Tolefree had already noted several curious things in the solicitor’s office on the Saturday afternoon, small things but the sorts of things that a man is likely to notice if he happens to be a detective. The fate of Mr Spinks does not come as a great surprise to Mr Tolefree, and he is even less surprised when the medical examiner announces that Mr Spinks had been strangled and was already dead before his immersion in the canal.
There are in Mr Tolefree’s view five possible suspects although his view is somewhat at variance with that of the police. He is inclined to believe that their favoured suspect is very unlikely to be the killer. In any case Philip Tolefree is determined to conduct his own investigation and has little interest in the views of the police.
Walling was not the kind of crime writer who had any great ambitions other than to produce effective and entertaining mysteries. He could not be said to push the edge of the envelope in any way. He did however have the ability to construct satisfyingly devious plots. He also had the knack for peopling his novels with slightly offbeat and rather colourful characters. Walling’s prose is as smooth and easy-going and as pleasing as the personality of his detective.
Philip Tolefree is a middle-aged man with polished manners but with a playful sense of humour. He is a very civilised man, and Walling’s novels are very civilised crime novels. The Five Suspects provides plenty of thoroughly harmless diversion and I recommend it highly.