Saturday, February 15, 2014


Phineas Spinnet is the creation of Andrew Soutar, an incredibly prolific British writer during the 1920s and 1930s whose popular fiction mostly consists of romances and domestic melodramas. Soutar also wrote a handful of detective and crime novels some of which feature Spinnet who was popular enough to have appeared in a radio series during the 1930s. But based on this one adventure of his I can’t see what the appeal is.

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
When Drugmann, an old friend of Sir Cuthbert’s turns up unexpectedly – again after travelling in parts of Asia – Spinnet is convinced there is some conspiracy at work to get control of the estate. Then Drugmann drops dead from mysterious causes though Spinnet is convinced he was poisoned, a fate similar to that of Captain Leech. Yet how was the poison administered in full view of three other people? The method of the poisoning, however, will not be revealed until the final chapter. Though there was ample opportunity to play fair with just how and what form the poison took Soutar chooses to allow Spinnet dazzle everyone with his intuitive skills in a gathering of the suspects in the drawing room scene. It is a surprise and rather an ingenious way to kill someone but I was disappointed that Soutar couldn’t plant a few more clues for the benefit of the reader.

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
Other interesting facets of the book include a section devoted to passenger air travel and the business of a commercial aerodrome that takes up all of Chapter 24. In this chapter I learned that, in 1936 at least, it took four days to fly to Australia including all stops for refueling and stocking of provisions. Also that in order to talk to one’s fellow passenger the use of special earphone/headsets was required to cut down on the deafening noise of the propellers. I thought it was the best part of the book.

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.

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On my Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge Bingo scorecard (Golden Age version) this book counts as space L5 ("A Country House Mystery").


  1. John, I have a hard time with detectives who are unlikeable. But there is lots of interesting information here, so I am glad you tried him out and reported on your findings.

  2. I tend to like unlikeable characters, but they have to have *something* likeable about them. Flawed is one thing, but intolerable is another.

  3. The character might be intolerable but your review is so good that I feel tempted to search for this book.

  4. John: Are you trying to test readers on whether they are keeping track of your vintage bingo card going from 7 entries to 9 entries to 8 entries with this card?

    1. Aren't you observant! No, I just goofed. I did the Bingo Card scans before I wrote the posts. The cards reflect the order in which I read the books. Then I decided to write and post the Carter Dickson book (#9) before I wrote the post for book #8 above. I knew someone would catch me. I'm on book #12 now and I'm behind in writing the posts. I plan to write the posts in order from now on and won't be creating the Bingo card images ahead of time.

  5. I've come across the name of Andrew Soutar before, but never heard of his series detective and I think you found another title Adey missed in Locked Room Murders. Unlikable detectives (usually) don't bother me too much. So your reviews remains a burden on my wish list.

    1. You're probably right about this book qualifying for at least one impossible murder in the case of Drugmann's death. I've not encountered this very pulp fiction type method of murder in anything I've ever read though it's possible someone else invented it first in some magazine story earlier than 1936.

      Soutar does appear in Adey's book for The Hanging Sword!, a book that was offered for sale on abebooks a number of years ago and which I tried to buy. But it was one of those inactive sellers and I had to contact abebooks to get my money refunded when no book ever arrived after four weeks and the seller ignored all my emails. Soutar's most easily found crime fiction book is Kharduni also listed in Adey. There are many copies for sale all over the internet, especially from US sellers. I read it a long time ago, but didn't like it even though it was about a stage magician.

      I own two other Soutar books without Spinnet that also have JDC type plots about ghosts that murder. I plan on reading/reviewing those in October when this blog overloads on posts about supernatural fiction and scary movies.

  6. I'm pleased to know that the detective is so very unlikeable--I won't be tempted to add yet another title to my Look For list, although I am a bit tempted by the Carr homages that you mention. I'll be interested to see if the Soutar books without Spinnet rate any better with you.

  7. The detail about air travel dous sound fascinating - one the other hand, with comments like "He’s just too much of a jerk for me to care about him", I'm not feeling too bereft at not having made this detective's professional acquaintance as of yet! Thanks John.