Friday, June 21, 2019

FFB: Seven Clues in Search of a Crime - Bruce Graeme

THE STORY: Unwittingly while riding his bicycle home from his bookshop and lending library in Bray-in-the-Marsh Theodore Terhune foils an attack on Helen Armstrong. A group of men were after something in her handbag. Over the next couple of weeks Terhune ferrets out information from Helen and her employer Lady Kathleen Kylstone and uncovers seven clues that lead to one large crime that has its origins in the secret past of two families.

THE CHARACTERS: Seven Clues in Search of a Crime (1941) marks the first appearance of bookseller and accidental detective Theodore I. Terhune. An avid detective fiction reader Terhune has aspirations to become a writer of mystery novels. He has already penned a few stories that were published in Saturday Evening Post. His run-in with Helen and the assault that followed awakens in him an innate talent for detective work. Soon the two learn that the men were after a key that Lady Kylstone had entrusted to Helen. The key had slipped into the torn lining of her handbag and went undiscovered by the thieves. Lady Kylstone then reveals that the key opens the family burial vault and there is an annual ritual surrounding the vault. Every year on October 25 (the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt) the vault is decorated with flowers and opened to the public in honor of the Kylstone ancestors who fought in the battle. Terhune is certain that there is something in the vault that the thieves are after. That night someone breaks into the Kylstone home and steals the key from Helen's handbag. But why bother with going to such lengths to steal the key when in only one day it will be October 25 and the vault will be opened to the public? Theodore's curiosity is piqued and he cannot stop prying and investigating until he knows the answer.

News of his accidental heroism makes its way through the town and in a matter of days everyone is talking about "Detective" Terhune and his exploits. Alicia MacMunn is so entranced by the story of his thwarting of the thieves that she consults with Terhune to solve a mystery of her own. At an impromptu dinner party attended by Mrs. MacMunn, her daughter Julia, and friend Geoffrey Belcher Terhune hears the story of Mrs. MacMunn's bookloving father who was researching the genealogy and heraldic history of Bray-in-the-Marsh's noteworthy citizens. But a few months ago his impressive handmade history was vandalized. Someone stole the first 50 pages (consisting of family names ending in A through D) of the manuscript. Mrs. MacMunn would like Terhune to find out why and if he can to recover those pages.

Of course the thefts of the vault key and manuscript pages will eventually tie together in one of the most outrageously complex stories. Terhune's adventure will involve a trip to New York City and Albany, a professional criminal for hire, attempted murder on board a passenger ship, a mystery woman nicknamed "Blondie", an automobile accident that kills four people, and learning the true identity of a salesman who worked for a tire manufacturing company.

Apart from Terhune, Helen and Lady Kylstone -- our trio of heroes -- the story is populated with a large cast of stimulating characters. As with the best of these type of adventure-quest styled detective stories everyone Terhune meets in his travels has a noteworthy scene. A man with a scar who seems to be following Terhune will turn out to be not a villain but an ally while the tart-tongued cocktail guzzling vixen Julia MacMunn who at first Terhune dislikes intensely will prove to be one of the most resourceful and compassionate people he meets.Other notable characters include Det-Insp. John Henry Sampson who enlists Terhune as his unofficial assistant when he sees Terhune has an innate talent for police work and encourages him to delve further; Lt. Kraszewski who has two brief but excellent scenes in the NYC section; and Mr. Ramsay, Margaret Ramsey's father, who has quite a tale to tell that will provide Terhune with lots to mull over on his way back to England.

INNOVATIONS: The entire novel is one of Bruce Graeme's trademark experiments in narrative. Rather than following the standard formula of a traditional detective novel presenting the reader with a crime and having the detective sift through evidence and question suspects Terhune encounters a series of mysterious events that indicate a crime about to happen. Each new adventure leads him to one more clue to the true crime at the heart of all the various mysteries. Among the seven clues of the title are a gold fountain pen with a strange insignia, a cablegram from New York, a piece of paper with the name Blondie and an address, a statue of Mercury, and the intriguing life of Margaret Ramsey, Mr. MacMunn's secretary who moved to New York.

The book is an excellent example of a genre blending crime novel that mixes adventure thriller, quest story, detective novel and satire of English village life into one highly entertaining read. Graeme has a wicked sense of humor and the caustic wit that makes up most of the dialogue is a highlight. The dinner party, for example, during which Terhune learns of the manuscript and the missing pages is one of the funniest scenes in the book what with all the jibing and banter between bitchy Julia, her easily ruffled mother and sarcastic Geoffrey Belcher. Imperious and no-nonsense Lady Kylstone (who is also an American) has some great lines, too. Graeme's mature women characters reminded me of the matriarchs and doyennes of Rufus King whose older women suffer no fools gladly and speak their minds with blunt honesty.

QUOTES: Lady Kylstone: "Diana Pearson would prove a better source for information of that nature. She is a born osteologist where the metaphorical skeletons of the cupboard type are concerned."

Arnold Blye to superficial Julia MacMunn: "I thought you hated books. What are you looking for? A book on cocktails?"

THINGS I LEARNED: This is one of the rare bibliomysteries in which books are talked of with reverence and displays the author's knowledge and love of books of all genres, but in particular detective and mystery fiction. Among the names dropped throughout the story are Dennis Wheatley, Leslie Charteris, Frank Packard, Peter Cheyney, Lawrence Meynell, Edgar Wallace, and Philip Gibbs who was mainstream but who I know wrote two novels with supernatural themes. Every now and then a name cropped up that I didn't recognize like Ursula Bloom, who after I trolled the internet for info I learned is the most prolific woman writer of the 20th century with approximately 560 works to her name and a handful of pseudonyms she used. One book discussed intriguingly was the bestseller of 1940 I Bought a Mountain. This is a memoir written by 21 year-old Canadian born Thomas Firbank describing how he bought a house and land in Wales and became a sheep farmer. It sold thousands of copies all over the world and supposedly made Wales a dream destination for anyone looking for the "good and simple life" that Firbank extolled so beautifully in his book.

THE AUTHOR: Graham Montague Jeffries (1900-1982), better known as Bruce Graeme, also wrote under the pseudonyms David Graeme (claiming he was Bruce's cousin), Peter Bourne, Jeffrey Montague, Fielding Hope and Roderic Hastings. He was astonishingly prolific in crime and adventure fiction writing exactly 100 hundred books and created, in addition to Terhune, five other series characters:  Supt. William Stevens, Inspector Allain of the Sûreté, Det. Sgt. Robert Mathers, Inspector Auguste Jantry, and -- the character he is probably best known for -- Richard Verrell, alias "Blackshirt," a professional thief who becomes a successful crime novelist. Prior to turning to full time novel writing Jeffries was part of the Westminster Rifles during WW1 and worked as both a reporter and a movie producer. His son Roderick Jeffries was also a mystery writer who as "Roderic Graeme" continued the Blackshirt novels before writing crime and suspense fiction under his own name.

EASY TO FIND? Well, what do you know? As of this writing there are absolutely zero copies of Seven Clues... available for sale from the usual online bookselling sites I regularly check on. But don't let that stop you. tells me that there are two copies held in prominent US university libraries and four copies in UK and Irish libraries. Get a copy via interlibrary loan, why doncha? This is one of the most entertaining crime novels I've read this year. Had I the money I'd reprint this one in a pinch.

Theodore I. Terhune Detective Novels
Seven Clues in Search of a Crime (1941)
House with Crooked Walls (1942)
A Case for Solomon (1943)
Work for the Hangman (1944)
Ten Trails to Tyburn (1944)
A Case of Books (1946)
And a Bottle of Rum (1949)
Dead Pigs at Hungry Farm (1951)

Please note that this list is the only accurate listing of Theodore Terhune books on the web. Elsewhere you will find lists with missing titles that do feature Terhune or incorrect books listed that feature a detective character other than Terhune.


  1. As us al, the most fascinating books seem to be the hardest to find. *sigh*. It does sound good.

    1. Believe me, I don't intentionally choose books based on their scarcity. I don't want to make this torturous. I never know until AFTER I read and review a book if a title of mine turns out to be relatively rare. I was frankly surprised that there was nothing for this title. So many of Graeme's books turn up in abundance. I guess this one didn't sell very well. Unfortunately, after looking for several of the Terhune books I dont' have I've learned that many of them turn out to be his most scarce titles. Bummer. Because I loved this character. He'd be very popular with modern readers, I'm sure. Especially the "cozy crowd."

  2. A very interesting book description and a great review! Thanks for consistently bringing forgotten authors and worthy rare titles to the attention of mystery readers. I'll have to poke around my state library system to see if anything is in storage and available from this author under his pseudonyms. And "Dead Pigs at Hungry Farm" could be either very good or pretty rough going, but the title is certainly intriguing!

  3. So, finally one that I have read. Unfortunately, I don't share your enthusiasm for it. After an interesting beginning with 'rabbit' to the rescue found this tedious going.

  4. Interlibrary loan it is! At least I will try.

    Are there other books by this author that you recommend? Barzun & Taylor are enthusiastic about The Undetective, but list only that and one other title.

    1. Reviews of other books coming over the next couple of months. He was very much intrigued by the intersection of fictional and factual crime. Many of his plots deal with crime writers and their work contrasted with the “real” crimes committed within the novel.

    2. Great. I will stay tuned. Thanks, John.

  5. This sounds very intriguing to me, but obviously going to be hard to find.

  6. John – I am catching up with the posts I missed. I’ve only read Graeme’s The Mystery of the Stolen Hats (which one of your posts put me on to in the first place), and I’ve been meaning to read more of his work. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Very interesting. Although Graeme was a variable writer, because he was so prolific, at his best he was very good. As you say, his experiments are especially interesting

    1. Good news for all! Moonstone Press will be reprinting six of the Theodore Terhune books. I I see that this one, the first of the series, is already being advertised on the U.K. version of Amazon though it has yet to show up Moonstone’s website. The first two books are slated for release on February 12 & 15, 2021. I figure it’s OK to announce now. Each of the Terhune books features a foreword written by me. I also helped to provide some of the texts for the harder to find books.

    2. Great! Thanks for helping with getting these books re-issued.