Sunday, October 24, 2021

Charles Forsyte's Diving Death (Dive Into Danger)

British diplomat and intelligence agent (and magician) Gordon Philo and his wife Vicky wrote a small number of very underrated mystery thrillers under the pseudonym Charles Forsyte, beginning with Diplomatic Death in 1961. It’s no surprise that several of their books have a diplomatic background, including the excellent Murder with Minarets (published in 1968).

Diving Death (also published as Dive Into Danger) was their second effort, appearing in 1962.

Inspector Richard Left of Special Branch is lazing in the sun in the picturesque little village of Port-St-Pierre in the south of France. Left is having a long-overdue and well-deserved holiday. He runs into Sir Paul Pallett, a very distinguished archaeologist with whom he has a very slight acquaintanceship. Sir Paul casually asks Left if his presence in Port-St-Pierre has anything to do with the Knossos, a luxury yacht currently anchored offshore. The Knossos is owned by a nouveau riche type named Dermot Wilson, a type for whom Sir Paul has nothing but contempt. Wilson is there to conduct underwater archaeology (something else for which Sir Paul has nothing but contempt). He considers Wilson to be a dilettante and a charlatan. Wilson has however attracted some archaeological talent to his expedition - a very able chap named Syce and a youngster named Lockhead.

Sir Paul then springs two surprises on Left. He reveals that he has accepted an invitation to go aboard the Knossos on the following day, and he asks of Left would like to accompany him. Left is, truth be told, growing a little bored with his holiday so he accepts.

On board the Knossos are Wilson, Syce, Lockhead, Wilson’s fiancĂ©e Julia Ferrers, his secretary Mary Lawton and a diving master named Marshall. As Left and Sir Paul head towards the yacht in a motor launch Wilson swims out to meet them. Marshall, Lockhead, Julia and Mary are all on a dive, seventy feet down investigating the 2,000-year-old wreck of a Greek trading ship (Syce remains topside as safety man). Wilson then dives down to assist them. Shortly afterwards a body floats to the surface, very dead and with a harpoon through the chest.

Left is well out of his jurisdiction but it will take the French police hours to arrive. Left is very much aware that any delay in beginning a murder investigation could mean that vital evidence will be lost. He assumes (correctly) that the French police will not object if he starts that investigation immediately.

Left will also have to consider two other incidents which could be attempted murders.

Working with a French police detective named Lapointe proves to to be not too unpleasant.

Lapointe comes up with an ingenious solution but Left isn’t happy with it. Left is not the sort of detective who starts theorising as soon as he’s gathered a few facts. He likes to be sure he has all the facts first. The problem he faces here is that when he believes he has all the facts he still can’t come up with a theory that he’s happy with. He starts to think that his facts have to be wrong somewhere, but those facts all seem so clear-cut. He feels that he must have missed something, and that is in fact what has happened.

This is very much a puzzle-plot mystery in the golden age style. The circumstances mean that the murderer must be one of a very very small group of people - it must be someone who was aboard the Knossos. Left has one immediate priority - to establish the time of death. In this case he is able to do almost to the minute. His second priority is the question of alibis. Every one of the suspects appears to have a rock-solid alibi but one of those alibis must be false. The emphasis on timing and alibis, and the skill with which those elements are handled, will bring a warm glow to the heart of any golden age detection fan.

There are plenty of clues including one of the most delightfully outrageous examples I’ve ever encountered.

The underwater setting for the murder is not just interesting and unusual, it’s an essential plot element. Archaeology is also a bit more than just a colourful background to the tale.

There’s also no shortage of possible motives, and this element is also handled extremely well.

I discovered Charles Forsyte through TomCat’s glowing reviews at Beneath the Stains of Time. And Pretty Sinister Books also features a very favourable write-up on this author (or rather authors).

Used copies of the second and fourth Charles Forsyte books, Diving Death and Murder With Minarets, are not too difficult to find. The first and third books, Diplomatic Death and Double Death, are very very rare.

Diving Death compares extremely well to the very best works of the golden age of detective fiction. It really is that good. Very highly recommended.


  1. Yes, Double Death is a difficult one to get a hold of, but thought Diplomatic Death was a little more easier to track down. That one really feels like it could have been published in the 1930s instead of the 1960s. I hope you can find a copy.

    Since you've been enjoying Forsyte, I can't recommend Kip Chase's Murder Most Ingenious enough. Another traditional, slightly updated Golden Age-style mystery from the sixties. Some were still trying to write genuine detective fiction.

    1. The cheapest copy of Diplomatic Death available at the moment would cost me $200 (including the shipping) but I haven't given up on tracking down a more affordable copy.

      I'll definitely add Murder Most Ingenious to my shopping list.