The Corpse with the Dirty Face was the eighth of Englishman R.A.J. Walling’s Philip Tolefree mysteries. This 1936 novel was also published under the title The Crime in Cumberland Court.
I’ve become quite a fan of the Philip Tolefree detective tales. I wouldn’t claim that Walling belongs in the front rank of golden age writers but he was a solid and generally entertaining second-tier practitioner of the art of detective fiction and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Walling’s books also benefit from the author’s deep love of the West Country where he spent his entire life.
Private detective Philip Tolefree is employed to investigate the disappearance of merchant banker Benjamin Broadall. It transpires that this is not just a missing persons case but murder, and a rather ghastly murder at that. Tolefree’s old friend Inspector Pierce of Scotland Yard is in charge of the official investigation but Tolefree’s involvement is far from over.
There is nothing impossible about the crime itself. It’s the motive that is impossible. Plenty of people could have killed Broadall, but why would anyone want to do so? Several people have motives but these motives are, in Tolefree’s view, quite unconvincing. Obviously someone did have a sufficient motive and it’s equally obvious that there is something very important that has not been revealed to either Tolefree or the police. There is a secret behind this murder. It’s also clear that no-one is telling the whole truth. Broadall’s daughter Mary, his nephew Dick Silverbridge, his devoted secretary Pollerby, the seedy doorman Wiverton, the lovely widow Mrs Landrake and the two suitors for Mary’s hand, the bluff young son of the local squire Jack Budshead and Broadall’s musical young friend Lionel Causeland - every one of these people had an opportunity to commit the murder and every one of them is hiding something.
The convoluted and ingenious plot provides the basis for a classic fair play mystery. In my view a successful fair play mystery requires more than just a plot that holds together satisfactorily. The solution should also be psychologically plausible. The murderer should be someone capable of committing the deed and the motive, when revealed, must be believable. The Corpse with the Dirty Face satisfies all of these requirements.
This is not one of those books in which the official police are portrayed as well-meaning but bumbling buffoons. Inspector Pierce is an intelligent policeman with a subtle but very effective approach to his job. Tolefree and Pierce co-operate amicably and efficiently. In some of Walling’s books Tolefree does conceal important evidence from the police but in this tale he is scrupulously fair in his dealings with Inspector Pierce. Tolefree’s biggest problem in fact lies in persuading the various witnesses to tell the truth to the police, something they are extremely reluctant to do.
Walling took to writing detective fiction quite late in life after a long and successful career as a newspaperman (working as a reporter, an editor and a publisher). His style is rather breezy with a nice leavening of sly wit.
Walling was a pretty consistent writer. The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas, The Five Suspects, The Corpse in the Crimson Slippers, The Corpse in the Coppice and The Corpse with the Grimy Glove are all highly entertaining and I’d find it difficult to pick a favourite.
The Corpse with the Dirty Face is a thoroughly enjoyable example of the English golden age detective story. Highly recommended.