Viner (whose first name we never do learn) is a young gentleman of leisure who lives with his aunt in a comfortable house in the Bayswater. They have at least two daily rituals – after dinner, he reads a murder mystery aloud to his aunt. When they’re finished and she retires, he takes a short walk before returning home and going to bed.
One evening, the reading finished, he chides his aunt as to her preference for mystery stories he considers wildly improbably. She counters with real-life examples of situations – disappearances and murders – that were even wilder than those in the stories they read. He smiles knowingly, she retires to bed, and he goes on his walk.
And runs smack into exactly one of those wildly improbable murders he has been admonishing his aunt about. He sees a young man run running from the alley behind his row house, and then he finds what the young man is running from – a body. A neighbor has been stabbed to death and apparently robbed. The police investigate, and the next day the young man is arrested trying to pawn one of the dead man’s rings. Yet what seems like an open-and-shut case turns out to be something else, something as wildly improbable as one of the aunt’s stories – long-ago disappearances, a possible impersonation, a young woman who may or may not be an heiress, and a considerable amount of general skullduggery.
This is The Middle of Things by J.S. Fletcher (1863-1935), originally published in 1922 (when automobiles were still called motorcars). Fletcher was one of the best-known writers during mystery’s Golden Age (roughly 1920-1950), and this mystery novel helps explain why – numerous twists and turns, witnesses suddenly turning up, and the reader left guessing until almost the very end.
The son of a clergyman, Fletcher was raised by his grandmother on a farm in Yorkshire. He became a journalist and extremely prolific author of some 237 works. He first published poetry, and eventually began writing mysteries. Amazon Kindle has Fletcher’s The Complete Works (15 mystery novels) for $2.99.
Viner teams up with the dead man’s lawyer to investigate what the police won’t. He’s convinced that the man charged with the crime didn’t do it; as it turns out, Viner attended school with him (and an old school boy would never commit a murder). Viner and the lawyer travel to the middle of England and track down witnesses and evidence. And they begin to uncover a nefarious plot.
A product of its era, The Middle of Things is still a highly entertaining story.
The Yorkshire Post: How fame eluded a man of many words
Photograph: London alley at night via Spitalsfield Life.