Monday, April 27, 2020

MOONLIGHTERS: W. Stanley Sykes, Anesthesiologist Obsessed with Crime

There are mystery writers whose work in their primary field is far more interesting than their dabbling in genre fiction. Then there are those who dabbled whose work is so strong on plotting, character and imaginative use of detective novel motifs they should have kept on writing books for decades. Such is the case of William Stanley Sykes, an anesthesiologist (or anesthetist as they say in the UK) who was a pioneer in his field. His monumental Essays on the First Hundred Years of Anaesthesia, a three volume work, is still held in high regard, mostly for his painstakingly researched history and the evolution and development of treatment methods. But his interest in criminology, ingenious murder methods and the exacting nature of police work in the pre-WW 2 era resulted in only three novels and three solve-them-yourself mysteries. It's a shame we have no more than that small output from him. He had a real flair for the genre.

His first novel The Missing Moneylender (1931) was published with the prosaically dull title The Man Who Was Dead in the US. Of his three novels this is the most easily obtainable title for it was reprinted several times by Penguin in paperback editions. ...Moneylender has been reviewed favorably by TomCat at Beneath the Stains of Time and Ron at Vintage Pop Fiction and is examined in a highly opinionated, post-modern approach that is completely ignorant of detective fiction conventions at A Penguin a Week. His second The Harness of Death (1932) is the focus here. It's the only Sykes mystery novel I own and one of two remaining works not reviewed anywhere in the blogosphere.

Unlike his debut mystery novel Sykes decided to make The Harness of Death an inverted mystery novel. The first chapter we watch a blackmail scheme go terribly wrong. The victim Edgar Marston turns on his tormentor, the snide and weasely owner of Reinhold Metal Works and foundry. Even though the blackmailer is holding his victim at bay with a revolver Marston manages to turn the tables, disarm Reinhold and bash in his brains. He then disposes of the body in the metalwork's foundry furnace.

Chapter Two follows in a different setting which interestingly occurs almost simultaneously as the action in the preceding chapter. The attendant in charge of the stored luggage at Southbourne Station notices blood seeping out of a trunk, opens it and discovers a "disarticulated leg." He is horrified and immediately calls the police. The police set up a trap for the owner of the trunk. When he shows up to claim his property the police learn there was a terrible misunderstanding. Dr. Hemsworth, the owner of the trunk, tells them: "I don't blame you for arresting me. But the person who owns that leg is very much alive." It seems Hemsworth has a research project and he was allowed to take the leg from a recent amputation at the hospital where he works. He foolishly left the trunk too long at the storage room due to some delays at his job. Now the leg is spoiled and useless for his research. The police find this all hard to believe so they drag the doctor to the station and have a parade of hospital employees come in to verify his identity and story.

These two incidents will eventually link up in the first of several eyebrow raising surprises in a book replete with criminal ingenuity and viciously executed murders. The case is investigated by Sykes' series detective Inspector Dennis Drury and his capable team of policemen and law officials. The foundry is a front for an intricate criminal operation populated with myriad scoundrels and duplicitous employees with secrets in their past. The police wonder why someone didn't bash in Reinhold's brains years ago, he turns out to have made several enemies. Drury is always turning up someone he remembers from his days as a beat cop as he interviews the various employees at the foundry. The final third of the book is taken up with a pursuit at sea as the police track down their quarry and attempt to prevent another murder. Deep sea fishing is described with expert gusto that would have Ernest Hemingway dripping with envy. The climax is heightened by a battle to hook a 200 pound tuna with two men harnessed into a high tech rod and reel and fisherman's chair. Who will do in whom?

William Stanley Sykes, 1939
photo © by Howard Coster
(Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London)
Not only is the plot intricate and engaging but Sykes has a talent for making even the most minor characters like Sam Garside, the stowed luggage attendant, fully human. Like George Bellairs who also enjoys giving us micro-biographies of characters who appear on only a few pages, Sykes has fun with filing us in on the quirks and homelife of his supporting cast while often revealing secrets the police will never uncover. Garside spends much of his workday working the contest crossword puzzles in the newspaper longing to strike it rich with the prize money. Wayland Harrison, Reinhold's crooked partner, likes to cheat at golf. Marston is embezzling funds from Reinhold to help finance his expensive, sometimes dangerous, hobby of tuna fishing. Black humor and untold criminality add satiric spice and enliven his detective plot.

The life and medical career of William Stanley Sykes (1894-1961) has been written about extensively all over the internet and I'm not going to reiterate any of it. The most detailed and concise summation is his obituary that appeared in the British Journal of Anesthesia.  I was fortunate to find two portraits of him at the National Portrait Gallery's vast database. So there he is over on the left as he appeared in 1939, seven years after the publication of The Harness of Death. As for his fiction writing I have lots to report.

Sykes' third and last detective novel is The Ray of Doom (1935) which incorporates elements of science fiction was published only in the UK by Hodder & Stoughton. This is the rarest of his detective novels. The database tells me that there are only 9 copies held in a mix of US, Canadian, UK and Australian libraries. Currently, two copies are offered for a sale from online dealers, but they both appear to be battered ex-library books. Pass! No one is getting $129 (plus postage) from me for a dirty, beat up book no matter how rare it is.

Hush #8, January 1931
He contributed three mini short stories that were solve-them-yourself mysteries for Hush, edited by Edgar Wallace and created by William Collins & Company as a way to help market the work of their bestselling mystery writers who were part of Collins Crime Club. It may have been a perk for subscribers who signed up for The Detective Story Club, a short-lived imprint & subscriber book club from Collins that reprinted in cheap hardback format several popular detective fiction books and thrillers from the 1920s and earlier. Three of Agatha Christie's Jane Marple short stories that would eventually appear in The 13 Problems (1932) -- The Tuesday Night Murders in the US -- as well as works by Sydney Horler, the Coles, and J.S. Fletcher all appeared in Hush alongside Sykes' puzzles. The magazine ran from June 1930 to June 1931 and had only 13 issues. Subtitled "Problems in Detection" Sykes' only short stories as such are "How Was the Knife Thrown? (Jan 1931), "The Dangerous Safe" (Feb 1931), and "The Locked Room" (March 1931).


  1. You make this one sound even better than The Missing Moneylender! Sykes had all the potential to outshine the other British "humdrum" and scientific mystery writers, like R. Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts and John Rhode, but perhaps he thought he had nothing more to contribute to the genre. A rediscovery and new editions of his work is long overdue.

    Your snappy comment was an invention to take another look at that highly opinionated, post-modern review and the problem with it is that it gave more attention/weight to the side dressing of the story than to the main course of the plot.

    1. I really disliked how Karen reads way too much into the story and thinks that the perceived prejudice she talks about so fervently had something do to with the author's own class prejudice. How can she know that? It's all surmise and arrogant surmise, IMO. Why can't it just be fictional character work? This kind of talk is elitist in itself. Most of these PC types never recognize that in themselves. The attack on the author is just as supercilious as the perceived attacks on fictional characters they found in a novel. It's such a waste of time, IMO.

      Anyway, I see Sykes' portrayals of the working class in Harness of Death as all in good fun. Some of it is clearly done for comic effect, but I don't think it's mocking or ridiculing. Plus, it's such a small portion of the book. I've not read The Missing Moneylender so I can't say anything about the so-called class prejudice there, but I trust your opinion more than hers. It's a detective novel first and foremost.

      Much more interesting is how Sykes discusses at length police work and how it differs from what one finds in standard detective novels which are mostly fantastical and imaginative works rather than realistic. It's some of the most insightful writing about real police work done this period. It's also instructional and enlightening for the reader. He was fascinated with how the law really works and tires to emulate that in his police characters. Harness of Death is a really a fine example of the inverted detective novel and an entertaining story to boot. It ought to be reprinted for sure.

    2. I think class prejudice is too strong a term. Sykes can come across as a little smug and snobby in The Missing Moneylender, but you can probably put that down to him looking at another strata of society and only seeing the surface without fully understanding, or appreciating, what goes on beneath it. So the depiction of the Jewish characters tend to lean a little towards caricature, but without any true hate or malice behind it. I don't believe Sykes was yelling, "Goddamn Jews," while writing the book or spitting on his housekeeper every time he finished a chapter.

      Do you know what we need to do? We need to start making a monthly list of the long out-of-print, or untranslated, mystery novels reviewed that month and start harassing our favorite publishers with it.

    3. I like that idea! I'll start making mine today.

  2. You've reminded me that I had heard very good things about The Missing Moneylender, but the title got lost in my theoretical "Huh, I really must buy that some day..." list and so has lain dormant and forgotten in the memory banks -- thank-you, I shall seek to rectify this in due course.

    And The Harness of Death sounds amazing. Someone contact the BL!!

  3. I liked The Missing Moneylender though I don't know that it can outlive its exaggerated reputation for anti-Semitism.

  4. So! I pointed out an error in your post and you are unwilling to hear of it !

    1. It's not an error. I didn't post that pseudo know-it-all comment because I no longer have patience for nitpicking internet trolls. Both you and Roger Allen are consigned to the Delete box regularly.

      If you read the sentence properly you will see I say: "Three of Agatha Christie's Jane Marple short stories that would eventually appear in The 13 Problems (1932) -- The Tuesday Night Murders in the US -- as well as works by Sydney Horler, the Coles, and J.S. Fletcher all appeared in Hush alongside Sykes' puzzles."

      That's three of Christie's stories for each of the three stories that Sykes wrote.