THE CHARACTERS: Swan (whose first name is never mentioned once in his debut appearance) belongs to a long line of academics who turn to amateur sleuthing as an intellectual kick. He proposes that Philmore turn secretary and record their investigations. Luckily, Philmore has a skill in shorthand making it all the more easy to get down the minutest details. Readers may notice that Philmore, like S. S. Van Dine and Anthony Abbot among other less notable Golden Age detective fiction writers, is also the author of the book signalling that it is a pseudonym which, obviously, it is. As a Watson Philmore proves to be more than helpful when it comes to interviewing women in the case. He has a charm and affability about him that the distant and intellectual Swan lacks. Also Philmore confesses to us in his narrative that he has fallen a bit in love with Joyce Cornish which makes his interactions with her a mix of anticipatory gladness and discomfort knowing he needs to treat her as a suspect. Joyce is too smart not to notice this. In fact she is very much aware of her allure and uses it to her advantage as often as she can.
Most of the men find Joyce's attractions difficult to ignore. She has openly talked of the lack of passion in her marriage, lets both Swan and Philmore know that she and her husband have separate bedrooms at Kemble and by inference we know that is true of their own home. It is a happy but loveless (translation: sexless) marriage and Joyce finds herself straying. Frequently. Who among the male guests at the dinner party have succumbed to her slyly implied open invitations to join her after hours? Swan thinks he knows who; more than one man is guilty. But like a typical omniscient detective of this genre he's keeping mum. Swan's favorite and most irritating catchphrase is: "I don't think I'll tell you that right now, Dick." Infuriating both his assistant and the reader every single time.
As is the case with large casts -- and this one is hefty -- I find myself drawn to the quirky and eccentric characters. Some of these people show up only in one scene and yet their appearance is jarring or touching or humorous enough to merit mention. And so I pick the following three supporting players.
Mrs. Hannon, an elderly woman of less than modest means, finds it necessary to rent a spare room in her house to prostitutes. Basically Mrs. Hannon is running a no-tell-motel in her own home. She has a pleading speech poignantly rendered and I imagine delivered with much emotion (though Philmore doesn't let us know that) that fully justifies her need for the money and simultaneously explaining how her renting is an act of compassion despite looking like selfish greed to others.
Rounding out this trio is Archie Twite, a weasely pimp, who we discover was an agent working for Geoffrey Howarth. It seems that Howarth owned several buildings some of which were brothels and hotels frequented by prostitutes. Twite says his main source of income was helping to drum up business in these houses of ill repute. But of the these three involved in the world's oldest profession Twite will turn out to be the most surprising his insights and his aspirations to leave the sordid life he despises. He's one of the finest and most complex minor characters in Journey Downstairs (1934) -- sharp witted, impressive, and loathsome all at once. His street smarts and observational skills in the end prove extremely helpful to Swan.
INNOVATIONS: The detection in Journey Downstairs is based more on behavior and psychology than anything else. In this regard it owes a lot to the Anthony Berkley school where psychological motives are the focus. Swan's summation in the final chapter is almost exclusively based upon his observations of the suspects, his uncanny knack of figuring out who the really are based on their behavior and speech, and his refusal to believe that most of these people could commit murder. He eliminates suspects using behavioral clues and does not really build his case on physical evidence. In fact, there is very little of that at all.
|Italian edition. Title is literally |
translated as Invitation with Murder
What is innovative is the manner in which Swan employs Philmore as his Watson. Periodically, the two sit together and Swan encourages Philmore to ask questions of him about the murder investigation and he will elaborate and elucidate if the question merits an answer. But too often Swan gives us the old "I'd rather not tell you at this stage" type of comeback. This is a tactic that I thought went out of fashion in the early 1920s but apparently was still a standard annoyance in 1934.
Clearly, some of the answers to Philmore's pointed and intelligent questions would spoil the suspense. But in one case (having to do with the true identity of a "Mr. Robinson" who took Joyce to a hotel) I thought, after seeing the answer given in the final chapter, that telling Philmore and therefore the reader the answer when it was first asked that nothing would have been spoiled. In fact it would've made the story more exciting. But this is, after all, a first novel. So I'm willing to forgive the writer for his laxity and lazy style of holding back facts until the denouement.
Lastly, I feel it necessary to call attention to the title of the book. Just like Helen McCloy did with Cue for Murder, the title Journey Downstairs is one of the best clues to lead the reader in the proper direction.
|Herbert Edmund Howard (1900- ?)|
THINGS I LEARNED: In one unusual and inventive scene Swan visits Rev. Cornish at a boys' club. He insists that Cornish, his vicar/boss Canon Golightly, and all the boys play a game called "Priest in the Parish." The rules are cursorily explained in the book and not well enough for me to understand what was going on. So I headed to Google and found the game described in great detail in a Wikipedia article! (Does EVERYTHING have a Wikipedia page? Well, H. E. Howard doesn't.)
Basically it's a call and response game designed for large groups I can't imagine it working very well with less than ten people. One person plays the Priest and the rest of the players are split into groups and assigned into rows. The Priest calls out a phrase to which the players must respond with a given reply and must do so quickly and in unison. If they answer out of turn or one person in the group is not with the others, then they forfeit and must go to the back row and all other groups advance forward filling in the missing row. The goal is to be the group that is the closest to the front when the Priest ends the game. Swan sees the game as a test of concentration, teamwork and -- oddly -- devotion. He manages to discover a few things about Cornish and Canon Golightly that he otherwise would not be able to discern through mere questioning. Interested in the exact rules of "Priest in the Parish"? See this blog article.
EASY TO FIND? Well, what do you think? That's right. No. Through sheer luck and timing I found the only available copy of the US edition back in April of last year and spent a mere $23. There are currently two UK editions for sale online, both with dust jackets, and both priced way too high for anyone but the most discerning and rich of book collectors. I enjoyed reading this book and was hoping I could find at least one or two others. However, the only other title being sold is one in French (L'election de minuit, 1936). Based on the publication date I'm guessing it's the French edition of Riot Act, the second Swan and Philmore mystery, which has a political background that would match the "election" in the French title. There are literally zero copies of any other R Philmore mystery novels offered anywhere in the world. At least via online third party bookselling sites. What a shame. Based on my reading of his debut novel, the laudatory comments that Gollancz plastered all over the front of their editions of Journey Downstairs, plus the few reviews I've read of other Philmore mystery novels these seem to be top notch example of detective fiction. Perhaps a plea to independent presses out there might make new editions materialize out of the limbo of the past. Yes, I'm pleading.
Journey Downstairs (1934)
Riot Act (1935)
The Good Books (1936)
No Mourning in the Family (1937)
Short List (1938)
Above five titles with Swan and Philmore
Death in Arms (1939) - with Inspector Garnett
Procession of Two (1940) - with Inspector Garnett