"Pithecanthropus? You mean like the Java Man?" I hear you cry.
Yes, indeed. For Smith is described in the third paragraph of the first page as "over six feet tall, and broad in proportion – and, moreover, very ugly…, for his face was astonishingly like a chimpanzee's." The illustration of Smith on the paperback edition shown on this page provides him with a much handsomer countenance than I would imagine Kindon intended. It is his apelike features that inspired a wiseacre copper who had recently attended a lecture entitled "What Evolution Means to YOU!" to bestow upon Smith the anthropological nickname which has stuck ever since. Even the crooks have learned to call him Pithy Smithy.
The very involved plot is far too complex to reduce to a summary of a few sentences or even a few paragraphs. And it's so enjoyable I would be tempted to describe all my favorite characters and go into great detail about the funniest moments and most ingenious plot devices. I better not do that! Suffice it to say that Smith is on a walking holiday in rural English countryside that resembles Dartmoor though the area is completely renamed with fictional towns and landmarks. Over the course of the story rich in incident and adventure he encounters not only a puzzling brutal murder, but an escaped convict, industrial espionage, counterfeiting, revenge, and a crazed inventor of bizarre clockwork devices.
|More beautiful map endpapers from E. P. Dutton (click to enlarge)|
Map artist: Frank Adams
The cast of characters are far from the types of cliches you would expect from this era. Who could resist the kooky authoress, Cynthia Trebogle, who revisits the murder scene with Smith pontificating on her nutty theory that the murder was committed by "a priest of neolithic or druidical tribe" using a stone axe. Or the irascible Joshua Hubblesby who rhapsodizes on his idea of a real holiday being nothing more than riding his favorite train lines and sleeping. Even the police provide entertainment. Captain Hector Madan, Smith's superior, is a blustery impatient straight man providing many Margaret Dumont moments to Smith's insolent Groucho style quips. The officious younger inspector put in charge of the case is shown up many a time when he doggedly sets his eyes on MacFee as suspect number one while Smith points out he couldn't possibly be the killer due to the timing involved in MacFee's alternate route he took near the murder scene and suggests the inspector do the hike himself as proof.