The British Library recently has begun publishing two series for booklovers: Spy Classics and British Library Crime Classics. Here in the United States, Poisoned Pen Press has agreed to publish the latter, bringing a host of landmark murder mysteries back into print. Most of these were written during the Golden Age of English crime novels, so it’s no wonder they replicate the tone, content, and pacing of mysteries by Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. One noteworthy re-issue is Murder in Piccadilly by Charles Kingston. First published in 1936, this novel is a leisurely reminder of why some of us enjoy drawing-room dramas with murderous intent.
Whodunnit (or who is going to do it) is quite clear from the outset. A somewhat naïve, incurably lazy, and totally impoverished knave wishes to marry a showgirl. The only way Bobbie Cheldon can afford her involves the death of his uncle. Then the young man will inherit the family estate and will be able to pursue his dreams of leisure and everlasting love. When some nefarious acquaintances of the young dancer in question befriend foolish Bobbie, the plot predictably spirals out of control. So much is obvious, but complications—unexpected twists and turns—arise when a Scotland Yard inspector enters the scene. His Machiavellian instincts and his impeccable logic propel the mystery with an insouciant flair.
I do believe that a love for classic British mysteries is an acquired taste. Or perhaps some of us are born with a literary palate that relishes the unhurried hunt for justice, the back and forth of repartee, the slow unraveling of plot. Murder in Piccadilly, to be sure, ends with a startling revelation and a bit of gallows humor, but the rest of the novel moves at a more soporific speed. Readers who enjoy paging quickly through thrillers will find a book like Murder in Piccadilly just too slow. But it actually is fun to read, charming to savor, delightful to digest.
For example, Charles Kingston has a wry sense of humor than pinpoints characters and their motivations. Regarding a peer who has been married four times, Bobbie’s mother exclaims, “Why, it’s polygamy on the instalment plan.” Such one-line zingers occur regularly. Describing an array of Cheldon family portraits, for example, Kingston writes that “they formed a goodly company for the edification and sneers of guests according to their degree of humility or jealousy.” Double entendres abound in Murder in Piccadilly, made especially piquant because silly Bobbie routinely misses what the reader and many of the other characters see all too well.
Yes, I enjoyed Charles Kingston’s mystery classic. Even the surprise ending is well-conceived and well-executed and not really all that astounding as I reconsider earlier events that I skipped past too adroitly. The last few pages perhaps tie up some fragments too neatly, while leaving other snippets hanging, but on the whole, Murder is Piccadilly is exactly what it purports to be: a British crime classic from the 1930s. Poisoned Pen Press should be congratulated for bringing it to our attention. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Charles Kingston: Remarkable Rogues.