Monday, November 7, 2016

Miles Burton’s “The Secret of High Eldersham”

Miles Burton was one of the pseudonyms used by writer Cecil John Charles Street (1884-1964), a British Army officer who wrote more than 140 mystery novels. Street used several pen names, including Miles Burton, John Rhode, and Cecil Waye, and published numerous non-fiction works under his own name as well.

Street/Burton/Rhode is best known for his Dr. Priestly and Desmond Merrion mystery novels. Dr. Priestly solved mysteries using a scientific perspective; Desmond Merrion is more of the classic amateur detective (usually of independent means) who is called upon by the police for help in difficult cases.

The Secret of High Eldersham, originally published in 1930 and now republished by the British Library Crime Classics series, is the story that introduced Merrion. Don’t think this is just another mystery of the Golden Age of mystery novels; the philosopher and educator Jacques Barzun raved about the book and called it on of the best mystery novels of the 20th century.

It’s a classic in the genre, and a classic in the Golden Age. The story is set in the village of High Eldersham near the coast of East Anglia, where the manager of a pub is stabbed to death one night, with no suspects and no motive in sight. A Scotland Yard detective is called in, and keeps running into brick walls. But odd doings are afoot in the village, and it is those doings, including the appearance of what we would today call a voodoo doll, that begin the process of solving the mystery.

The detective brings in a friend, Desmond Merrion, to help him learn what people might not necessarily tell the police. Merrion discovers a wartime friend living nearby, and he discovers a beautiful young woman, daughter of the local magistrate, with a penchant for piloting speedboats very fast.

Cecil John Charles Street, aka Miles Burton
It’s a fast-paced, action-packed, and well written story. The solution gradually unfolds, and involves elements of old pagan religious practices, drug smuggling, and old scores being settled. Something is always happening in this story, including a bit of romance. Mystery writer Martin Edwards provides a solid introduction to the book, as he does with all of the Crime Classics series.

The Secret of High Eldersham is a fun read, with the additional benefit of being an extremely well-crafted story. The real mystery may be how Street (or Burton) was able to be as prolific as he was, starting his writing career after the age of 40.

Related: My reviews of other British Library Crime Classics

Photograph of an English pub (much like the The Rose and Crown in the story) by Lisa Baker via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

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