Thursday, October 6, 2016

“Richardson’s First Case” by Basil Thomson

Basil Thomson (1861-1939) had more professional lives than one could almost imagine. As a young man, he held a number of positions in Britain’s Colonial Office, most of them connected to posts in British Oceania like Fiji and Tonga. Because of his wife failing health, he returned to Britain in 1893, read for the bar examinations, and was admitted. But instead of practicing as an attorney (or barrister), he joined Britain’s prison administration. For 12 years, he served as deputy governor and then governor of several prisons, including Dartmoor. Then he became secretary of the Prison Commission.

In 1913, Thomson joined the Metropolitan Police as an Assistant Commissioner of Crime, which made him head of the Criminal Investigation Department of New Scotland Yard. When World War I broke out, he was called upon to expand his role to include military intelligence – which meant he set about catching spies. One of the spies he interviewed but did not apprehend was Mata Hari.

Knighted in 1919, Thomson continued his CID and intelligence roles until 1921, when he was forced to resign by Prime Minister Lloyd George (no one knows why). In 1925, he was arrested in Hyde Park for alleged indecent acts with a young woman. He claimed it was a set-up and that he was interviewing her for a book. But Thomson paid his fine of five pounds.

And he was a writer. He published novels, books on diplomacy, colonial service, and related matters. And then in the 1930s, he put his hand to writing mysteries – and it is these eight “Inspector Richardson” books for which he’s best remembered.

The series chronicles the rapid rise of a young, ambitious constable. In Richardson’s First Case, PC Richardson (we don’t know his first name) is standing on duty late one afternoon on (where else?) Baker Street in the Marylebone district of London when an elderly man is struck by an automobile. It appears to be an accident. The victim dies at the hospital. And then it’s discovered that the victim’s estranged wife is missing.

Basil Thomson
In this first Richardson novel, the constable plays a small but pivotal role. He catches the eye of one of the investigation leads and is assigned to the help on the case. Richardson is resourceful and unorthodox, and he’s able to suggest motives and reasons for witnesses who lie that doesn’t occur to the regular investigating officers.

The estranged wife is found dead at her husband’s business, and an inheritance turns on which of the two died first.

The novel was first published in 1933. This new e-book edition is introduced by mystery writer Martin Edwards, who provides an in-depth overview of Thomson and the Inspector Richardson mysteries and their place in the Golden Age of mystery writing.

Richardson’s First Case is action-packed, entertaining, and keeps the reader guessing until the end.

Photograph: The buildings that were New Scotland Yard in the 1930s, by Anthony O’Neil via Wikimedia.

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