Tuesday, March 15, 2016

FIRST BOOKS: Method in His Murder - Thurman Warriner

US edition (Macmillan, 1950)
It’s rare to encounter a discussion of evil in crime fiction these days. Why is that? Why is there such a stigma placed on the word? The use of the word has not only been weakened by post-modern analyses of “the banality of evil” it has been overused in pulpy horror fiction and movies where the word is used to conjure up cliché ideas of evil residing within demons who then possess humans and “make them evil.” Evil in genre fiction, if not being discussed in medieval or supernatural connotations often goes hand in hand with religious discussions and theological concepts. Every now and then writers of the Golden Age dabbled in talk of evil but more often than not it was coupled in a plot that mixed crime with witchcraft, demonology, and malevolent ghosts. When a book like Method in His Murder (1950) dares to talk about the existence of evil among everyday humans without once bringing up the supernatural the tendency is for a modern reader to balk at the writer’s ideas or laugh at the characters or both. Thurman Warriner is one of the few crime fiction writers who can discuss evil in a grounded, humane way without resorting to heavy handed talk of the Devil or grow tiresome with the usual historical references that exemplify the evil of mankind.

Charles Ambo meets Rhoda Wainfleet, a thoroughly evil woman in his estimation, who in the first sentence arouses this visceral reaction: “…he told himself that if she were his wife, instead of John’s, his thoughts would long ago have turned to murder.” Try as he might to warm up to Rhoda Mr. Ambo is bothered by the way she seems to control her husband, undermining his well being by preventing him from pursuing his love of writing, mocking his hobbies, and in her possession and jealousy seems to be literally destroying the man’s health and well-being.

Wainfleet draws Ambo into his confidence and reveals that he has been living a double life. He has fallen in love with another woman who is the exact opposite of Rhoda. Carolyn encourages his writing and knows him under his alias of “Roger Kirton”, a well regarded novelist. Wainfleet wants Ambo to help him handle some documents that will provide for Carolyn financially should anything happen to him. Ambo wonders if Wainfleet is in fear of his life, but the question is evaded. Ambo fears his thoughts about Rhoda are worse than he imagined. Should she ever learn of the existence of the other woman it would not only by John Wainfleet who would be in danger.

UK edition (Hodder & Stoughton , 1950)
There is a party at the Wainfleet’s and John leaves with two business associates. That night one of the associates -- Rhoda’s brother Laurie -- dies in a car wreck only a few hours after John was dropped off elsewhere. An inquest follows. John has a complex alibi that seems to put him in the clear and despite the involved proceedings at the inquest he is cleared when the coroner’s jury returns a verdict of death by misadventure. Mr. Ambo, however, is troubled by that alibi. It seems too convenient and he is certain that John is not telling the whole truth. He is sure that Laurie Barton was murdered and also believes that Rhoda is somehow involved. No matter how he tries to disbelieve the verdict all evidence keeps pointing to John Wainfleet as a very clever murderer. With the help of private detective J. F. C. Scotter and his ravishing and sharp-witted secretary Lottie Mr. Ambo gets to the bottom of a cleverly engineered murder cover-up.

Throughout the tale we are treated to numerous discussions of evil. This is the first book to feature Warriner’s three series characters -- Ambo, Scotter and the Archdeacon Toft -- all of whom live in his fictional cathedral city of Tonchester. Last year I had reviewed The Doors of Sleep, another tightly plotted puzzling detective novel set in Tonchester, that touched on fundamental concepts of good and evil. Without having knowledge of this first book reading the Archdeacon’s beliefs in The Doors of Sleep came off as retro-medieval to me. But knowing that book is a continuation of the ideas set forth in Method in His Murder everything can now be seen in a different light. Here are examples of Warriner’s concepts of everyday evil:
"[Archdeacon Toft] seems to believe that the Devil has been released on parole, as it were, and that one of his minor activities may be to lure unsuspecting motorists to their doom by drawing their attention from the wheel at moments when all their efforts should be concentrated on driving."
"You’re not telling me that you actually believe in the Devil, Mr. Ambo?"
"Knowing human nature as I do, I see no harm in keeping an open mind, [Superintendent] Tydd."
Even Scotter gets into the act:

AMBO: "Could you believe that there is someone here in this town who knows John Wainfleet’s torment as well as I do, and take an unholy delight in it? Someone who thinks of his downfall as a personal triumph?"
SCOTTER: "Believe me, brother, if you’ve been a dick as long as I have you wouldn’t jib at anything. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Devil put his cloven foot down the chimney and knocked the teapot right off the table."
Later Scotter is less facetious when he gives this example:
"Remember that Nancy Cardwell case? Nice little kiddy—only seven years old. I was on the edge of it. They made out that Hanson killed her because she was identified with all the decent things he’d lost in his own life. Fellow’s in Broadmoor now. Oh yes, that sort of thing happens!"
The perspicacious summary of a child killer’s motive is telling and will come into play when the reason for Laurie Barton’s death is made fully clear. Rhoda Wainfleet is shown behaving in the same manner when she attempts to destroy a valuable Bible Mr. Ambo owns (he’s an avid antiquarian book collector) by throwing it in the fireplace. He can only see her act as one in which she tries to destroy anything that gives another person happiness. She strikes out impulsively, selfishly and callously. As bleak a portrait as she is painted Rhoda is not the only symbol of evil in this story. The culpability of all will be made apparent in the unexpected finale. While some of the criminal acts seem to be rationalized nearly everyone is shown to have succumbed to the “taint of original sin” Archdeacon Toft mentions earlier in the book.

Method in His Murder is available only in the used book market. The book was published both in UK and US hardcover editions but no paperback reprints exist that I could verify. No modern reprints are currently available in either print or digital format. Libraries are always a good bet, too. For more on Mr. Ambo, Archdeacon Toft and John Franklin Cornelius Scotter see my review of The Doors of Sleep. There is a bibliography for the entire series on that page.


  1. If the novel is substantial enough to bear the heft of a serious debate, that sounds really great. I've been thinking a lot about Hammett's novels of late and it is usually in the hardboiled school that I usually find books solid enough to transcend the mere whodunit gambits. Thanks for all the details John, especially as getting a copy seems not easy :)

  2. Very interesting. I read a couple of Warriner books a while back - I think we discussed them? - and you have sharpened my appetite to read more. They do have too many sleuths in them, four is just weird! But I will look out for this one.

    1. Yes we did, Moira. Thanks for stopping by. I liked this one just as much as THE DOORS OF SLEEP. In some ways it's actually better plotted. I keep thinking of the idea behind your blog when I come across a book with an love of wardrobe descriptions. Recently, I learned all about Hattie Carnegie, an American designer from the WW2 era, in a book by Louisa Revell.

  3. As you might remember, John, I loved THE DOORS OF SLEEP when I read it last year, but damn if I've been able to find any other Warriner books at reasonable (read: cheap) prices. But I'm always on the look out. So I'll add this one to my list.