Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Christopher St John Sprigg's The Corpse with the Sunburned Face

The Corpse with the Sunburned Face, published in 1935, is one of the handful of detective novels written by Christopher St John Sprigg before his death at the age of twenty-nine in the Spanish Civil War. He was also a noted Marxist theoretician (using the pseudonym Christopher Caudwell for his political writings) although there’s virtually no political content in his detective stories.

The Corpse with the Sunburned Face opens in the sleepy Berkshire village of Little Whippering with the arrival of a man named O’Leary. O’Leary rents a cottage just outside the village and lives a life of seclusion, driving off well-meaning callers with the aid of a shotgun and a savage dog. Since they know nothing about him the villagers engage is a great deal of thoroughly enjoyable speculation, the most popular theories being that he is a murderer on the run or a miser guarding his hoard.

Another stranger arrives, a black-bearded man, who is shortly afterwards found dead in the neighbouring village of Abingdon. O’Leary (very much alive) is found in the room with the dead man but it appears to be an obvious case of suicide. Inspector Gregson doesn’t buy the suicide idea at all. There are too many odd circumstances. Most local policemen (in detective stories anyway) are very reluctant to have the Yard called in but Inspector Gregson persuades his chief to do so immediately. Inspector Campbell, a Scot (as is Gregson), takes charge.

There are lots of colourful complications. O’Leary had recently returned from West Africa where he had served a prison term for attempting (with two confederates) to steal the treasure of the Kingdom of Balooma. The dead man (who rejoiced in the name of George Crumbles) had also been involved in that escapade. And there’s another dead man, back in West Africa.

There are also the two boarders recently taken in by the vicar of Little Whippering. The vicar had advertised for boarders but had neglected to enquire into any of their personal details before their arrival. Their arrivals cause quite a stir. The vicar had assumed that Mr Jones was a Welshman, but he is certainly not a Welshman. Dr Ridge, an American anthropologist, shocks him even more. He had not expected American anthropologists to be young, female and pretty. Dr Ridge is studying the customs of primitive tribes and has decided that the natives of Berkshire are about as primitive as you can get. She discovers all sorts of fascinating local customs, most of which (much to the consternation of the vicar) she associates with sex. The vicar does not think that these are things that his sixteen-year-old daughter Psyche should be hearing about.

Inspector Campbell forms a splendid theory, which rapidly collapses. He decides that he will have to go to West Africa to find the answers to this puzzle.

The first half of the book is a conventional detective story, with clues and alibis and the other things one expects from the genre. Then we get the solution to the first half of the puzzle. Far-fetched, but ingenious enough.

Once Campbell gets to Africa everything changes (which I guess is the point of the book). The solution to the second half of the puzzle is obvious to Inspector Campbell and will be fairly obvious to the reader. What matters is not the solution, but Campbell’s response to it. It becomes a tale of Africa, a tale of two different cultures and a moral dilemma.

There’s plenty of amusement to be found in this tale. The author has fun noting the similarities between village life in England and in Africa and the odd convergences and divergences in beliefs.

Modern readers might well be shocked by what they will perceive as the book’s political incorrectness but it’s clear that St John Sprigg is intending to be extremely sympathetic to the people of Balooma. He’s also rather sympathetic to he British colonial administration. For someone who was by this time a doctrinaire Marxist the author is remarkable even-handed and inclined to regard people, whatever their beliefs, with affectionate indulgence. The vicar of Little Whippering (who pops up again in West Africa) is a thoroughly pleasant and likeable chap. St John Sprigg does not come across as a writer determined to condemn people for their beliefs. He’s also sympathetic to belief in the supernatural, whether it’s a European or an African belief in such things. This is really quite a good-natured book.

There’s also a romantic sub-plot, with the young American lady anthropologist and the Scottish detective making an unlikely but effective romantic pairing.

I should warn you that although the cover of the Bruin paperback edition (shown here) depicts an aeroplane flying over a herd of elephants neither elephants not aeroplanes play any part whatsoever in the story.

The Corpse with the Sunburned Face may not satisfy readers who are looking for a traditional puzzle-plot mystery. If you haven’t figured out the solution very early on you’re just not trying and the solution does not particularly seem to interest the author. And the solutions to the lesser mysteries are all revealed by the halfway point. It is however, in its own way, thoroughly entertaining. So, with those caveats, it’s recommended.


  1. This is the only one in which his political colors bleed through the story a little, but, as you said, it's quite a good-natured book without any malice, preaching or finger wagging. How he introduced Jones and Dr. Ridge into the story must have been very disarming at the time. What a shame he throw his life away in a war that wasn't his.

    Death of a Queen should be your next stop in the series. Sprigg applied the world-building technique of the fantasy and science-fiction genre to the detective story and it's without question his best.

    1. I'll definitely have to add Death of a Queen to my shopping list. I just read the blurb on it and it sounds wonderful.