Friday, May 17, 2019

A mystery wrapped in an enigma: "JANE BOYD", Murder in the King's Road (1953)

Yes, I know I'm misquoting Churchill, but the misquote fits the present book quite nicely.

First of all, it is indeed a mystery novel, as you might reasonably guess from its title and its rather garish cover. I happened to stumble across it when I was idly browsing the catalogue of the Boston Athenaeum, no less, and I added Boyd to my database as an author to research. Since I am actually engaged at present in some research with a view to finally posting a new update to my British Women Writers list, it wasn't long before I looked into her a bit more. I found nothing except the fact that the name was a pseudonym.

Which leads to the enigma surrounding the mystery. When I forwarded my list of new authors to the great and powerful John Herrington, whose research skills extend far beyond my own and who is so often a life saver in these situations, he discovered that the book's publisher had apparently said that "Jane Boyd" was a pseudonym concealing "the identity of a crime writer of distinction".

Now, I was not born yesterday, so I realize that publisher lingo might be a bit more hyperbolic than reality would reflect. It should go without saying that I, when wearing my publisher cap, have never engaged in such hyperbole (!!), but some less scrupulous publishers might, so "distinction" could be a relative term here. Even allowing for that, however, I was intrigued enough to want to sample the prose, and an enthusiastic short review I came across sealed the deal. An Abe Books order followed, and—the book arriving in a record-breaking two days from placing of the order (from Texas to California, no less)—I took it as a sign from the literary universe and immediately dived in, bypassing numerous other books awaiting my attention.

It turned out to be a good solid little mystery—not an all time favorite, but quite enjoyable. It opens with Miss Arbutus, the ubiquitous middle-aged spinster, walking her dog, Caramel, early one summer morning, and noticing, as she window shops at a familiar antique shop, a body sprawled on a sofa inside. The body turns out to be that of bestselling novelist Vernon Bran, and the mystery somehow involves a batch of old furniture which the antique shop's owner has just acquired from an estate sale. The suspects include Paul Dedham, said shop owner, who purports never to have seen the victim before, Julie Bran, wife of the victim and a well-known actress herself, who is none too broken up over his death, Mr Blaggart, Bran's publisher, who has been eagerly awaiting a long-promised manuscript from Bran, and Miss Arbutus's godson Michael, who would seem to have no connection to Bran but who is strikingly fixated on the crime. Plus there's Michael's fiancée Claire, Claire's new housekeeper Arlene, and a few others, who behave more or less oddly about it all.

It's an effectively disparate and seemingly unconnected group of characters, whose gradually-revealed interconnections and motivations are satisfyingly intricate (but not impenetrable, so I'm pretty sure it's not a lost Gladys Mitchell!). The "who" of the whodunnit was a bit disappointing for me, but on the other hand I certainly didn't anticipate this person's guilt, and the various plot twists and revelations had me reading quite compulsively.

The writing is solid and enjoyable, but certainly not lavishly literary or sophisticated, so it's not a lost Sayers or Tey, and it lacks the brilliant, focused simplicity of a Christie, the slightly noir edge of an Allingham, and the perkiness of a Heyer. (And although Miss Arbutus has some very clear ideas about proper masculine behavior, she's not nearly homophobic enough to have been created by Christianna Brand!)

There are certainly some standout moments here and there. For example, I loved the passage in which Miss Arbutus is just realizing that what she's looking at is a corpse instead of a window display:

Vaguely at the back of her mind the figure reminded her of something, not of a particular person but of some occasion when she had seen figures which looked similar in their stiff abandon. Then it came back to her; of course, it had been during the raids, once she had come upon a house which had just been bombed, the inhabitants had been killed and were lying about in the rising smoke and dust, they had looked just like stuffed dolls, just like this man.

And there's a touch of humor in her subsequent anxiety about dealing with the police:

Miss Arbutus, for the second time, repeated the story of her morning walk and of her sinister discovery. By now it sounded improbable, even to her. If they asked her maid if she were in the habit of parading the streets at five-thirty a.m. because she couldn't sleep and Mary said, 'Yes, Madam often does that,' it would sound strange. If she replied, 'Madam has never done such a thing before,' it would seem stranger still.

But the greatest strength of the novel are Boyd's two detectives, Inspector Pobham and Detective Richards, an intriguing twist on the traditional Holmes and Watson:

Richards' chief, Geoffrey Pobham, was an improbable person to find in the precincts of Scotland Yard. Those who knew him felt that an Oxford college would have provided a more suitable background to his jovial, cynical wit and his academic qualifications. Richards had been appalled when he first met him. He had felt that such an apparent lack of zeal and such a sympathy with the criminal classes could only provide a demoralising element in the Force, but by now he had learned better. To Pobham, on the other hand, Richards with his sense of duty, lack of humour and strict sense of justice was a constant delight. When he had taken up his work at Scotland Yard he had been rather disappointed to find that his colleagues were far from the stereotyped detectives of fiction, in Richards alone he seemed to see the model of an inspector. Pobham always claimed that it was purely on these grounds that he had chosen Richards as his assistant, but whether this were true or not he had by now developed an irritable paternal affection for him.

It's really rather a shame that this was the only appearance of Pobham and Richards—had Boyd written 20 or 30 books about them, they might now form the basis of a highly entertaining television series.

At any rate, it's entirely appropriate that the novel's plot revolves around questions about whether the murdered Bran really wrote the novels he published, since the book's own author is also shrouded in mystery.

I was convinced, in my naïve way, that my handy database of authors would provide a handful of tantalizing possibilities for the true identity of Jane Boyd. Assuming that to have been called a "crime writer of distinction" by even the most unscrupulous publisher, she (I do think it's a woman, though of course we don't know for sure) must have published at least a few novels before 1953, I sorted the approximately 45,000 titles in my database by year of publication, and then browsed all of 1950-1952 for authors of multiple mysteries who were active in those years.

The result, as I should probably have predicted, was a bit more than a handful. Apart from the big names mentioned above, who were surely unlikely as possibilities anyway (under the assumption that a pseudonymous publication by any well-documented and closely-researched author—with savvy heirs interested in maintaining a steady income—could not have remained hidden for so long), I came up with no fewer than 30 possibilities. Ahem. Some are more likely than others, and many are authors I haven't read, so I can't judge just how unlikely those are, but the ones I have read I couldn't quite eliminate from contention (Josephine Bell? hmmmm). Here, for your consideration, is what I came up with (most of these are on my Mystery List, if you want to see what I know about them):

Marjorie Alan
Margaret Archer
Pamela Barrington
Josephine Bell
Margot Bennett
Emery Bonnett (pseudonym of Felicity Winifred Carter and husband)
Caryl Brahms (known for humorous mysteries, so probably not a match)
Pamela Branch (ditto)
Zenith Jones Brown (American, but she had written many British mysteries as David Frome)
Joanna Cannan
Joan Cockin
Alexandra Dick
Doris Disney
Mary Durham
Margaret Erskine
Katharine Farrer
Elizabeth Ferrars
Joan Fleming
Kathleen Freeman (better known as Mary Fitt)
Mary Violet Heberden
Anne Hocking
Ianthe Jerrold
Lucy Beatrice Malleson (better known as Anthony Gilbert)
Jean Marsh
Edith Pargeter (had already written mysteries as John Redfern and Jolyon Carr, though she hadn't yet created her most famous incarnation, Ellis Peters—this would have been her only feminine pseudonym, but who knows?)
Sheila Pim (Boyd isn't funny enough to have been Pim)
Mona Radford (better known as M. A. Radford)
Shelley Smith (more a thriller writer than a whodunnit author?)
Nancy Spain (known for wordplay and camp, so probably not a match)
Patricia Wentworth

What do you think? Any "Eureka!" moments? Alas, not for me, though I will say that there were moments as I was reading when I thought the prose seemed familiar somehow. Probably just my imagination? Or not?

Well, you can test your own abilities below, as I'll post a two-page sample from very early in the novel (so as not to spoil anything). If anyone has a revelation and cries out, "That could only be Mary Violet Heberden!", do let me know…


  1. What a fun sounding mystery. It does read well, but strikes no cords of memory.


  2. I wish I could help, but have not read any of the names on your list of suspects. Here's wishing you the best. I went through a similar exercise several years ago involving a post-war fly-by-night paperback publisher called News Stand Library. Located in Toronto, they'd put out pseudonymous early work by Hugh Garner (who would one day win the Governor General's Award) and Ted Allen (best known for the film Lies My Father Told Me). I read through every book written by authors for which I could find no information. The idea was that I just might uncover an unknown Mordecai Richler or Brian Moore novel. No such luck, but it was fun. Many of the books were delightfully dreadful.

    1. I'm sure my pursuit is vain as well, Brian, but I'm glad you enjoyed yours too! I haven't read most of the authors on my list either, and am not planning on diving into all of them, but who knows, I may run across one some day and feel that the style is uncannily familiar...

  3. Judging just from this sample, the author appears to have a penchant for writing run-on sentences, the independent clauses pile up as if in a hurry, each idea attaches itself to the one before it. Like that. It's possible this is a choice to tell us something about the character's habit of mind, but I would be willing to bet it's the author's own, and would be a feature to look for in the work of any suspected pseudonymer.

    1. That's a great suggestion. I tend to focus on the overall feel of an author's style and their interests and themes (probably because I never really got on with grammar classes), but I should focus more on the concrete details if I want to identify the author. Thanks for the suggestion!

  4. I like the style. Low key, self-effacing humour. Deciding between appearing a fool if it isn't a dead body, while recalling it would better if he were still alive.

    Now, here's perhaps a clue. If the publisher had simply said, "pseudonym for a writer of distinction" it could be, say, Paul Gallico or Mary Reneault, putting aside their usual fare to dabble in mystery.

    But here we have a "crime writer of distinction." So likely NOT the cosy type, but some more heavy duty tough crime writer,say, Peter Cheyney, who wants nothing to do with dog-walking spinsters and antiques shops.

    1. That's a great thought, Susan. I did "feel" that the novel was probably by a woman, but we all know those feelings can be wrong. Did Peter Cheyney use lots of run-on sentences by any chance??? :-)

  5. I can tell you who it isn't based on their style, sense of humor (or lack of it), and their real jobs:

    Cross off all the Americans: Doris Miles Disney, Leslie Ford, M. V. Heberden (naturalized US citizen and her books are VERY American, not at all British)

    Joan Cockin - pseudonym of a diplomat who wrote only three books
    Anthony Gilbert - had only one other pen name and this isn't it
    Margaret Erskine - dull, dull, dull writer
    Marjorie Alan - wrote Mignon Eberhart women in peril style thrillers. Not interested in policemen or detection.
    Joan Fleming - rarely wrote about policemen or police procedure. She was more interested in crime itself and criminal motivation. Had only published six novels by 1953 and was not yet a "real name" in crime fiction yet. Not considered a contender until she won her CWA award in 1962.
    Pamela Branch and Nancy Spain - both women have senses of humor much too arch for this kind of book
    Patricia Wentworth - Dora Turnbull created PW as her pseudonym and was hugely successful under that name. Why publish one book under a bland pseudonym long into her career and sneak it out with a publisher that no one's heard of?

    The phrase "writer of distinction" is tossed around so cavalierly on dust jacket blurbs that I think Susan D is being led astray. You can put any adjective in front of "writer" and it makes no difference, IMO. I see the phrase used all the time in vintage PR and old newspaper ads just to sell books. It could be ANYONE! But it is not Cheyney -- apart from the fact that he'd NEVER write a book like this even as a lark -- because he died in 1951.

    I'd love it to be Joanna Cannan whose handful of detective novels are rather odd. She wrote about policemen and was highly critical of them. Her series character, Insp. Ronald Price, was practically inept at his job. Chances are it's not her. But you never know...

    1. Thanks so much for the expert feedback John. I'd love to be able to get to the bottom of this, but it's a tough one, and as you say it could be someone fairly obscure. I wonder if the key could be to see what other authors were on Harvill's list--hmmm.


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