Friday, April 20, 2012

FFB: Murder in the Moor - Thomas Kindon

The policeman on holiday has been done to death in the detective fiction genre, but Thomas Kindon's engaging and lively Murder in the Moor (1929) may be the quintessential example. You probably know the drill here – a policeman goes on vacation intending to be as far away from crime as he can manage yet invariably stumbles upon a corpse that is almost always a puzzling murder and he cannot resist uncovering the who, why, and how of the crime. What Kindon does with this well worn territory is very different and highly original on all levels. Best of all the book is wittily told and often hilarious when Kindon lets loose with his obvious fondness for outrageous humor and bizarre characters. Most appealing of all is his unusual detective Peregrine Clement -- aka Pithecanthropus -- Smith.

"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
From the opening pages when Smith meets up with the Scottish engineer Angus MacFee, in love with his prismatic compass and fond of calculating the proper hiking routes using his ordnance survey in combination with the compass, to the final thrilling pages in which Smith saves the convict Jimmy Toggle from a fiendish deathtrap created by the mad murderer the story is gripping, engaging, literate and witty. The detection is fascinating and also adheres to the fair play rules.  We even get a bit of Oppenheimesque spy stuff and a pulp magazine bit of gruesome bizarreness in the final chapters that would be the envy of Edgar Allan Poe.

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.

But now the bad news. Thomas Kindon's 1929 detective novel is yet another of those books you will be hard pressed to find. I stumbled across my copy in the Chicago Public Library then wondered if any used copies are out there. My dutiful internet search turned up exactly ten copies in various editions for sale ranging from $35 to $158, plus one dealer in Germany who wants $197 for his copy (a US edition from 1929) that is just plain greedy. The book was reissued in Jacques Barzun's "Top 50 Classics of Crime" series published by Garland that was intended solely for libraries. I suggest you check your local library first. Chances are it may be there.


  1. I won't get my hopes up that any of the libraries in this town has a copy, but the title of the book and name of the author (never heard of him before) has been jotted down on my never-ending wish list.

  2. TomCat -

    This is such an excellent book that I didn't even know how to write about it without giving away too much. As it is I think I went a little overboard in my praise. Well worth the hunt, I'd say. You really ought to look for a copy of this one. Truly one of the best books of the late 1920s. It's right up there with THE BOLT as one of the little known treasures by a little known writer.

    Unless Curt Evans knows something about him there is very little biographical info on Thomas Kindon. I haven't been able to find a thing on the writer. According to Hubin he wrote only one detective novel. Jacques Barzun thinks he only wrote this one book. I'm thinking that the name might be a pseudonym. Another mystery to solve!

  3. Sounds really great John - there is zero chance of my local library having access to a copy and I am definitely going to hunt around and see if I can get an inter-library loan. Sounds like a real hoot - always a joy to read such an enthusiastic review!

  4. If I were a reprint publisher I'd jump on this book in a New York minute, Sergio. Highly deserving of being reissued in order to be enjoyed by those who like me are starving for a darn good detective story of the old fashioned mode.

  5. John--I'm sure you saw this post on Mystery File a couple of days ago about how hard it is to find copies of mysteries written in the 1940s--

    I can only imagine that going back another couple of decades makes the search even harder. I'll add this book to my "list," but whether I'll ever find it is another story.

  6. Not at my library! I already checked. I hate when you do this, John. Tempt us with a fabulous book that is not readily available. GAK!!

    This is definitely my kind of book and I've written the info down - a lot of good it will do me. But I will try and stay hopeful. :)

  7. I bought my copy of MITM (in the Methuen printing) at a local book sale last year for three or four dollars. Not sure if I'm trying to give people hope that you can luck out with some of these hard-to-find books or just trying to nauseate everyone...

    Now if I could only find a copy of The Bolt...

  8. You've done it again, John. I'll HAVE to try to find a copy!

  9. Darrell -

    Did you read it? What did you think? I'm eager to know. I still can't believe all the copies of THE BOLT that were available years ago are now gone.

    Rick -

    If only I *owned* the copy I read I would gladly loan it to you. But it's back at the CPL (literally just returned it) awaiting some lucky Chicago reader.

  10. @John:

    Didn't you (or Curt) suggest The Bolt to the Rue Morgue Press or Langtail Press? Ever heard back from them if you did?

  11. Yes, that was me. Tom Schantz said he bought a copy. Nothing ever happened after that.

  12. Concentrating on winnowing some of the mysteries that have been on my shelves for too long, so I haven't read Murder in the Moor yet although it's currently in my tbr queue...(last ten mysteries I've read were all purchased pre-2010).