It is late June of 1912. Frank Spargo is a newly-promoted sub-editor at the London Watchman, and he’s on his way home at 2 a.m. after helping put the next-day’s paper to bed. He’s walking from newspaper row on Fleet Street through the Middle Temple area, on his way home to Bloomsbury. He suddenly sees a policeman he knows standing at Middle Temple Lane, and is told that a body is lying at the entrance of one of the buildings.
Sprago had been thinking of sleep, but now is instantly alert on the scent of a story. And there is a body lying at an entrance, a body without a shred of identification upon it. An older man has had his head bashed in, and there are no identification papers or even jewelry on the body, except for a small scrap of paper with a young and brand-new barrister’s name on it.
And so begins J.S. Fletcher’s The Middle Temple Murder, first published in 1919 and still a great mystery story.
Fletcher (1863-1935) was a British journalist who began writing detective novels in 1914. Over the next 20 years, he wrote more than 100 of them, and is considered today one of the great writers of the Golden Age of the mystery and detective novel (roughly 1920s to the 1940s). He also wrote more than 130 other works, including poetry and non-fiction, but he is best remembered for his mysteries.
The first part of The Middle Temple Murder is devoted to Sprago and the police trying to discover the dead man’s identity. Then the story focuses on the “why” of the crime, and Sprago (more enterprising than the police detective in charge of the case) will eventually find the motive buried deep in the past. The story includes a touch of possible romance and Sprago doing his best to protect the ward of the dead man. But villains abound in unexpected places, and Sprago will both find and sometimes stumble over them.
It’s an enjoyable mystery, as good (if not better) than one previously reviewed here, The Middle of Things.
Top photograph: the Middle Temple Gardens in London, near Fleet Street.