Spinnet is part of that subset of supercilious private “inquiry agents” inspired by Sherlock Holmes. What Soutar fails to capture in all of Phineas Spinnet’s arrogance and misanthropy is the kind of respect Holmes demands. Spinnet is just plain unlikeable. He has intuitive skills rather than a talent for detection, an ego as immense as the Atlantic Ocean, and a coterie of lackeys who do most of the real work while he sits back insulting nearly everyone he encounters. He smokes his expensive cigarettes sneering and dismissing everyone around him as incompetent. It’s only the unusual background of the primary characters’ connection to British colonies in India and Ceylon that held my interest in this adventure of Spinnet’s aptly titled Facing East (1936).
The story begins with a great hook reminiscent of the best of John Dickson Carr. Sir Cuthbert Bale asks for Spinnet’s help in finding out why the legendary Death Watch specter has reappeared and is haunting the grounds of Grimston Hall, Bale’s ancient Tudor estate located in Crowhurst, Sussex. Captain Leech, a visiting ex Indian Army soldier has dropped dead while visiting Sir Cuthbert and witnesses claim that an apparition with a skull like face was most likely the cause. Any time the Death Watch phantom appears someone is sure to die shortly thereafter.
Spinnet makes his way to Grimston Hall where he meets up with a group of suspicious servants led by the sinister Lycett, Sir Cuthbert's Indian butler. The story begins to shift in point of view and soon it is clear that the overall mood and structure will be that of a thriller and not a detective novel. The servants are busy at night doing some mysterious digging on the grounds and explain that they are looking for a mineral spring for the possible construction of a well. Spinnet knows better that to believe such an implausible story. His suspicions of ulterior motives are confirmed when the chauffeur reveals that he has been reading up on the history of Grimston Hall in some library books and has learned of treasure that may be buried in the vicinity of the house. Then the chauffeur disappears one night after one of the midnight digging sessions.
|St George's Church, Crowhurst, Sussex|
scene of the criminal activity in Facing East
Several macabre set pieces (again almost a homage to Dickson Carr) manage to maintain the reader's interest. These include an illegal exhumation, the surprise of a missing corpse in the coffin, some grisly antics in a family vault and the reappearances of the Death Watch specter in and out of Grimston Hall. Spinnet is assisted by Timson, an ex-convict manservant in the manner of Magersfontein Lugg, and a reformed con artist named Marie Crosby Dick who has a talent for acting. The two of them pose as a "Lady Blythe Kenny" and her servant "James" and hole up in a local inn in order to keep tabs on some other bad guys outside of the Bale household.
|10 1/2 days back in 1930|
I’m not sure I’ll be investigating any other adventures of Phineas Spinnet. He’s just too much of a jerk for me to care about him. Eccentric detectives were all the rage back in the heyday of the Golden Age but this detective who cares more about his jigsaw puzzle collection than people is just not the kind of character I’m interested in reading about. Give me detective with quirks and humanity, not this odious megalomaniac.
Nearly every book featuring Phineas Spinnet is exceptionally hard to find anywhere. Those that are offered for sale tend to be inappropriately expensive for such an obscure and unread author as Andrew Soutar. Facing East was the first one I came across that was relatively affordable. But save yourself the trouble of hunting, my friends. Here’s one Neglected Detective who is best forgotten.
* * *
On my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo scorecard (Golden Age version) this book counts as space L5 ("A Country House Mystery").