Friday, November 6, 2015

T. C. H. Jacobs' Sinister Quest

Sinister Quest was the third of the Chief Inspector Barnard mysteries of T. C. H. Jacobs. It was published in 1934. T. C. H. Jacobs was one of the many pseudonyms used by English writer Jacques Pendower (1899-1976) who produced a huge number of books in various genres.

Sinister Quest is a murder mystery but with very marked thriller elements as well. I think it’s reasonable to say there was a definite Edgar Wallace influence on this work.

The novel is set in Devon, which happens to be where the author was born and raised.

Captain Montague Prothero is a guest at the Castle Hotel in Sidmouth in Devon. Among the other guests is a delightful young lady, Barbara Delaine. Miss Delaine having decided on a walk to nearby Peak Hill Prothero had followed her, hoping to strike up a closer acquaintance by running into her accidentally on purpose. He doesn’t find the lady but what he does find is a dead body in a quarry. What he doesn’t know is that he is being watched and that there is more than one watcher. 

Finding a dead body is not a very pleasant thing but in this case it is rather more shocking than usual - the dead man’s ears have been hacked off!

The local police having had a complete hash of the investigation Scotland Yard have been called in. Chief Inspector Barnard is dispatched to Sidmouth, accompanied by Sergeant Trotter. A murder investigation is always a serious matter but this case promises to be particularly important - the murderer may well be the infamous Ear Hound who has slain half a dozen London criminals, in each case lopping off the victim’s ears.

It is immediately apparent that the case is going to be a puzzling one. Soon after reporting the discovery of the body Captain Prothero disappears. The behaviour of Miss Delaine’s father is decidedly suspicious. There is the matter of Miss Delaine’s jade necklace, found near the the slain man’s body. There is the unexpected presence in Sidmouth of several notorious London villains. There is a mysterious message on a piece of paper that Captain Prothero found near the murder scene. And what of the inscrutable Chinese gentleman in the otherwise empty Ivy Lodge - empty of everything but a corpse?

It gets much more complicated than that - Chief Inspector Barnard will find that the case involves buried treasure, Chinese pirates, Italian gangsters, stolen gems, secret passageways, a madman obsessed with ears and lots more murders. The mysterious powers of the East will also play their part.

The overall tone and the various outrageous elements make this novel more of a thriller than a mystery, although there is definitely a mystery to be solved. Whether it qualifies as a fair-play mystery is another matter - Chief Inspector Barnard does hold back a couple of pieces of vital information. This book also plays fast and loose with the rules of detective fiction as laid down by S. S. Van Dine and Ronald Knox, and in fact breaks several rules outright.

It reminded me just a little of J. Jefferson Farjeon's At the Green Dragon which is also a bit of a hybrid of the thriller and the detective story.

Chief Inspector Barnard is pugnacious and determined but his arrogance, single-mindedness, blunt manner and very low tolerance for fools make him a difficult man to get along with. These qualities also make him quite an interesting detective hero. Sergeant Trotter is one of the few men at Scotland Yard who likes working with him - Trotter remains cheerfully oblivious to Barnard’s abrasiveness.

While golden age detective fiction purists might have some quibbles with the book Sinister Quest is undeniably entertaining. Recommended, on the proviso that you don’t mind the mix of mystery and thriller elements.


  1. Much as I love the fair play Golden Age mystery and revere it, I have to admit a low taste for thrillers where they throw in everything but the kitchen sink and keep the pace moving. Granted they aren't always great literature, but when you want to experience and not play the game it can be grand fun.

    1. David, I agree absolutely. There's something gloriously over-the-top about the thrillers of the interwar years (especially the British ones).