Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Charles Kingston’s “Murder in Piccadilly”

Perhaps the biggest mystery involved in Charles Kingston’s Murder in Piccadilly isn’t even in the book. Who exactly was Charles Kingston?

Historians of the Golden Age of the crime and detective novel know that Kingston;’s real name was Charles Kingston O’Mahoney. He has written one historical work, The Viceroys of Ireland, before he turned to crime writing. He wrote some 23 mystery novels from 1925 to 1945, He was born in 1884. Dorothy Sayers appears to have been a fanh, or at least gave him a good review. And that’s about all anyone knows of Charles Kingston.

Murder in Piccadilly, published in 1936, was the first of seven novels involving Chief Inspector Wake of Scotland Yard. There’s nothing flashy or eccentric about Chief Inspector Wake – he gets the hob done and the criminal brought to justice by simple and plodding hard work. He knews the terrain he’s investigating, and he knows the people who inhabit it. And he’s relentless.

In this first Chief Inspector Wake novel, what I investigated is technically not a mystery. We know how Massy Cheldon came to be killed – with a knife to the heart in the Piccadilly underground station, We know why he was murdered – he had a lot of money, and the heir didn’t want to wait for the old man to die of natural causes. We know all the people involved in the crime. But Chief Inspector Wake doesn’t know what we know, and he is determined to find out what actually happened.

So Murder in Piccadilly is less a mystery and more of a “will the detective catch the perpetrators” kind of story.

Piccadilly Circus in the 1930s.
Kingston is particularly strong in his characterizations. The crook con artist living offered a borrowed pound here and there; the night club dancer; the weak, spoiled heir who allows himself to be manipulated by all the wrong sorts; and even the capable, competent if rather dull police detective. The reader can easily see the characters because Kingston is so good in describing both their physical looks and their thoughts and actions.

The novel is one of the mysteries from the Golden Age (and earlier) being republished by the British Library in its Crime Classics series. Kingston’s novels have been long out of print; this novel, in fact, is the only one available without having to visit used bookstores.

Murder in Piccadilly is another good example of the kind of books popular in the decades of the 1920s through the 1940s when mysteries and crime novels were enjoyed by large numbers of people in Britain and North America.

Illustration: A postcard showing Piccadilly Circus in London in the 1930s.

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