Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Corpse in the Coppice

The Corpse in the Coppice was the ninth of R. A. J. Walling’s twenty-two Philip Tolefree mysteries. It was published in 1936 and the US title was Mr. Tolefree’s Reluctant Witnesses.

Mr Tolefree is on holiday with his friend Inspector Pierce from Scotland Yard. Pierce is recovering from a serious illness and has been persuaded by Tolefree to return to Netherminster, the idyllic village in which he grew up. Netherminster proves to be just as delightful and tranquil as Pierce had remembered it from his childhood. The tranquility is however short-lived.

Tolefree and Pierce, along with the Chief Constable of Netherminster, are dining at Ashcott House, the home of Martin Hawker. It’s a pleasant dinner until something very surprising and somewhat disturbing happens. Hawker tells Trelawney, the Chief Constable, that a murder is about to be committed. He does not know the identity of the murderer, or of the victim, but he is adamant that the murder will occur. Of course everyone assumes it’s some kind of joke, at least that’s the assumption until shortly afterwards when Trelawney receives a telephone call. A murder has indeed been committed!

The victim is Robert Pitt, who lives (or lived) with his wife in a rather curious house known as The Coppice, set on the edge of a wood. He has been shot. The victim is clutching a revolver which has not been fired. It appears that Robert Pitt either suspected that someone was likely to make an attempt on his life, or he was making an attempt on someone else’s life and his would-be victim beat him to the punch.

Trelawney, not unnaturally, asks Pierce to take charge of the investigation (and Pierce’s superiors at the Yard readily agree to the request). Trelawney’s title of Chief Constable is a little misleading - the entire Netherminster Constabulary consists of a sergeant and a dozen constables. And murder being entirely unknown in these parts it is a stroke of luck to have a Scotland Yard man already on the scene.

Walling was an author who was content to operate entirely within the established conventions of golden age detective fiction. His Philip Tolefree novels are fair-play puzzle-plot mysteries, almost entirely plot-driven and without much in the way of in-depth characterisation. Personally I have no problems with any of this. I have no problems with those authors of the era who tried to be a bit more adventurous but I’m perfectly content with a well-crafted well-written thoroughly conventional puzzle-plot mystery. And Walling was perfectly capable of writing such mysteries.

This is a book for golden age detection fans who get very excited by unbreakable alibis and by obsessive details about railway timetables and the length of time it would take Suspect Number 1 to get from Point A to Point B by car compared to the length of time it would take Suspect Number 2 to get from Point C to Point D on foot by talking a short-cut across Farmer Brown’s field. As it happens this is exactly the sort of thing that does excite me so I have no complaints. Of course it goes without saying that no-one ever did this kind of thing better than Freeman Wills Crofts but Walling does a pretty fair job.

The Corpse in the Coppice also includes another much-loved detective story trope - a Secret From the Past that holds the key to the motive of the killer. This is not a spoiler by the way - it’s made very clear right from the start that there is such a secret. In fact there may be quite a few secrets since not only is absolutely nothing known about Mr Robert Pitt before his arrival in the district, absolutely nothing is known about his wife’s past either. They are truly mystery people.

Walling was not a great stylist but his prose is pleasant and lucid, with an occasional flash of gentle humour. Within the strict confines of the genre conventions he is structurally quite sound. Walling lived his whole life in the West Country and all his books are set there. His deep affection for that part of England permeates his work and his feel for the atmosphere of a rural England that is now long gone is one of his strengths as a writer.

Philip Tolefree is, as always, a rather amiable private detective. While he relies a great deal on painstaking calculations of the timing of events before and after the crime he is also inclined to give considerable weight to his own psychological intuitions - he rules out certain suspects on the grounds that they are simply incapable of murder.

Walling might not have been a front-rank writer of golden age detective fiction but he was a solid and reliable writer of the second rank and The Corpse in the Coppice is a  thoroughly enjoyable diversion. Recommended.

I'd also recommend Walling's other Mr Tolefree novels such as The Corpse in the Crimson SlippersThe Corpse with the Grimy GloveThe Corpse in the Green Pyjamas and The Five Suspects.

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