Friday, December 7, 2018

FFB: Death at the Wheel - Vernon Loder

THE STORY: Two bodies found in cars, both shot dead, within days of one another.  The first is a policeman who has been investigating a sting of jewel robberies. The second corpse is a two bit (or six penny since this is England) fortune teller who calls himself Osiris. The question is - are these two murders or a murder and suicide? Rufus Tate (aka Osiris) seems to be implicated in the jewel robberies and it appears he may have killed the cop and then himself. Arthur Way, the Sulcote chief constable, doubts the verdict at the double coroner's inquest. Too many oddities make the suicide highly unlikely. With the help of a large crew of police, both local and Scotland Yard officials, as well as some surprise ideas from Clare, his fiancee, Arthur uncovers a very strange truth.

THE CHARACTERS: Death at the Wheel (1933) features a large cast led by Arthur Way, a rural chief constable at odds with the more experienced city cops of Scotland Yard.  Arthur, however, sees this unusual set of crimes as an opportunity to shine as the detective he always wanted to be. He has some very ingenious ideas how to approach the crime and is complimented for his contributions.  Scotland Yard should be assisting only at his instruction but that doesn't stop Assistant Commissioner Cance from setting up a rather unethical undercover operation with his ace detective Inspector Brow. When Arthur stumbles upon Brow in the disguise of a fly fisherman on holiday he becomes very angry.

Meanwhile, Clare's stepfather Holroyd Sayce is targeted as the primary suspect as the mastermind of the jewel robberies.  Sayce happens to be in the jewelry business making it all the more likely that he may be involved with a ring of thieves who are all carnival workers who have always been nearby each time a home was burglarized. 

Loder's signature wit is not lacking here. Clare Winkton is definitely a highlight with her brash wit and good sense. Clare is always teasing her stepfather nicknaming him Holly and treating him irreverently. Paradoxically she also seems to be protecting him from the police.She provides Arthur with one of the cleverest ideas when they brainstorm about where Smith, the master crook, might be hiding out.  She also points out to Arthur that a slip of paper that he is convinced is an intricate code is actually nothing more than a series of dates and initials.  The reader knows this as quickly as Clare does. In his attempt to prove himself a great detective Arthur does tend to overthink a lot of the obvious

Also I liked the bit part of Sir Guy Lunt, owner of an amber necklace that was stolen and broken up for its gemstones. Lunt is a foppish hypochondriac with a malingering case of "bronchitic tendencies." He reminded me of the vile Frederick Fairleigh in Collin's The Woman in White who never stepped out of his dressing gown and complained of aches and pains while pawing over his pornographic drawings.  Sir Guy Lunt is just as ludicrous, a perfect satiric creation and one more character in Loder's collection of worthless aristocrats who pop up frequently in his mystery novels.

INNOVATIONS: Too many cooks may spoil the broth, but too many policemen don't spoil this detective novel. There are a slew of policemen that I didn't really think I needed to keep straight. The more that were added to the story the more I kept thinking that this might have been Loder's attempt to imitate Henry Wade.  By the midpoint of the novel I was truly impressed with how different this was form the usual Loder detective novel which is usually brimming with eccentric touches, bizarre murder methods and outlandish incidents.  In a high contrast to his first eight books Death at the Wheel is grounded in real crime, murder committed with guns, dogged police work and career criminals.  It's a genuine police procedural and one of the best of its type by any of his contemporaries.  Loder can stand shoulder to shoulder with Wade, Nigel Morland or Helen Reilly, three of the best practitioners of true police procedurals, meaning detective novels that not only show us how police solve crimes but also explore the culture of police stations and the collegiality of policemen.
Guns & bicycles!  The murder weapon was
manufactured by this company based in St. Etienne.

Loder manages to juggle parallel storylines and we follow Arthur's raw edged, ingenious and experimental style of detection which is in strong contrast to the polished technical police work of the Scotland Yard men and local police.  The book might very well have been called The Case of the Three Shells for the bulk of the novel deals with the bullets, casings and shells of a French made .22 handgun, the murder weapon in both shootings.  Arthur spends a lot of time thinking about three .22 shells, where they were found, the lack of fingerprints on some when they should be present. He creates a variety of involved experiments like  the one with a pair of trousers worn by one of the victims. Arthur tires to discover if a fingerprint on a shell casing could be worn away over time if placed in a tight fitting pocket. He also studies wear patterns in the fabric to determine whether or not a gun could have been habitually carried in a certain pocket in the trousers. This was a fascinating section of the book showing off Loder's masterful plotting techniques and unusual ideas about crime solving.

THINGS I LEARNED:  At the end of Chapter 10 Clare makes this quip in reference to Smith, the burglar the police are hunting: "No one would knowingly put Charles Peace in the post of chief clerk, where jewels were bought and sold."  I had no idea who Charles Peace was and so off I went a-Googling.  I guess I should have known because he turns out to be one of the most notorious criminals in the history of British criminology.  Peace, a talented musician, in the guise of a travelling violin player and bric-a-brac peddler committed multiple burglaries over a three year period. He became wanted for two murders and one attempted murder of a policeman. He was pursued by police, arrested and tried in 1879. In a record breaking 12 minute jury deliberation Peace was found guilty and executed.  Peace has been immortalized in the penny dreadfuls of Victorian fiction, has music hall songs written about him and his life story was filmed at least three times. The most well known movie of his life and crimes may be The Case of Charles Peace (1949) directed by Norman Lee.

Arthur Way utters this odd sentence late in the book: "If he died, he died very suddenly. And like the dead donkeys, which they say no one ever sees, sir, he buried himself rather mysteriously."  I figured this was some sort of British slang so I went looking in various reference books. I'm not sure I got the actual origin, but this fit as close as possible. I was looking for something to do with dead donkeys never being seen. What I found is a "dead donkey" comes from the world of journalism, a phrase that refers to a story that is so trivial it can be killed to make room for more newsworthy story that deserves to be in print. Supposedly the phrase comes from a 1990s UK sit com called Drop the Dead Donkey and many people think it was created by the writers. But obviously since the phrase appears in a book in 1933 it's a lot older than the TV show. If anyone knows more about this odd allusion and phrase, please let me know in the comments.

QUOTES:  One of these mystery story writers would have made something of that, he mused. There would be a masked gang...with headquarters in some riverside dive. Clare would be their languid queen, at one moment in a Paris gown at some elegant hotel, at another clothed in black tights burgling the suite of a duke...

Arthur Way was a man with an active mind, and even the most busy of country Chief Constables finds that the routine of his job does not highly try his faculties. The idea of doing a bit of detective work on his own appealed to the boy which is latent in most of us.

"Good luck to you," said Cance, "but try to use your imagination, Brow! Common sense is a fine thing, but there isn't much of the X-ray about it!"

Clare: "...I could have skipped down to the gun-room, got one of Holly's shotguns and peppered the brute.  I wasn't really afraid."
That was like her.  It had always struck him that she was both cool and courageous.

EASY TO FIND? If you want a real book you're out of luck. It's a rarity.  But the good news for readers who have Kindle devices and live in the UK or Europe is that you can purchase a digital copy of Death at the Wheel from Black Heath Classic Crime.  TomCat has been reading the Nicholas Brady books put out by Black Heath so I guess they're OK. The fact that they don't have their own website makes me think these are pirated digital books and I'm not comfortable helping to promote them. But if this is the only way you can read the book, then go ahead and spend your money on them. They are ridiculously cheap, that's for sure.

It's a solid police procedural, one of Loder's better books filled with creative ideas and invention.  But as such it's very different from the weirdness that was displayed in the more original and bizarre mystery The Shop Window Murders recently reprinted by HarperCollins.


  1. The donkey idea is also in Animal Farm: "Donkeys live a long time. None of you has ever seen a dead donkey." I think it comes from the Pickwick Papers, (Chapter LI):
    " 'Never know'd a churchyard were there wos a postboy's tombstone, or see a dead postboy, did you?' inquired Sam, pursuing his catechism.
    'No,' rejoined Bob, 'I never did.'
    'No!' rejoined Sam triumphantly. 'Nor never vill; and there's another thing that no man never see, and that's a dead donkey. No man never see a dead donkey 'cept the gen'l'm'n in the black silk smalls as know'd the young 'ooman as kep' a goat; and that wos a French donkey, so wery likely he warn't wun o' the reg'lar breed.'
    'Well, what has that got to do with the postboys?' asked Bob Sawyer.
    'This here,' replied Sam. 'Without goin' so far as to as-sert, as some wery sensible people do, that postboys and donkeys is both immortal, wot I say is this: that wenever they feels theirselves gettin' stiff and past their work, they just rides off together, wun postboy to a pair in the usual way; wot becomes on 'em nobody knows, but it's wery probable as they starts avay to take their pleasure in some other vorld, for there ain't a man alive as ever see either a donkey or a postboy a-takin' his pleasure in this!' "

    1. Thanks for all that. Rural superstition I guess. Or a rural myth, just like the many modern urban myths we now have. It also sounds similar to the myth of elephants going to die in an elephant graveyard.

  2. Charles Peace, arch villain. Ah, those old Englishers had such delightful mountebanks, what?