W. Stanley Sykes (1894-1961) was an English doctor who wrote a handful of detective novels in the early 30s. The Missing Money-Lender (also published under the title The Man Who Was Dead) was the first of these, published in 1931.
As you’d expect from an author with a medical background many of the key plot elements involve science and medicine. There’s an obvious debt to R. Austin Freeman but there’s also an affinity to the police procedurals of Freeman Wills Crofts.
A money-lender, Mr Israel Levinsky, has gone missing. Inspector Ridley of the Southbourne Constabulary is a conscientious and competent officer and his investigation is thorough and efficient but it produces no results. In fact there are scarcely any clues. The one lead that seemed promising ended up going nowhere. It involved a Dr Osborne who had been called in to treat a fellow medical practitioner, a Dr Laidlaw, who subsequently died. There seemed to be no direct connection between the deceased medico and the vanished money-lender but there were several indirect connections and it was with considerable regret that Inspector Ridley had to abandon that particular lead.
With Mr Levinsky still missing the Chief Constable bows to the inevitable and asks Scotland Yard for help. As luck would have it Detective Inspector Drury and Inspector Ridley are old friends so they have no difficulty working together. And finally persistence starts to pay off.
This first half of the novel is almost pure police procedural, with patient methodical routine police work producing slow but definite progress.
Of course to launch a successful prosecution for murder it is very desirable to have a body and that’s where Inspectors Ridley and Drury strike real problems. There is a body, possibly more than one, but how many bodies there actually are is uncertain. The identity of the various bodies is even more uncertain. And as for finding a cause of death - there seems to be no hope of that at all.
The story now starts to move into impossible crime territory. Perhaps not actually impossible crimes, but exasperatingly inexplicable crimes. While police procedurals often deal with crimes that are straightforward once the detective has sifted through all the clues the impossible crime story by its very nature usually involves bizarre and ingenious murder methods.
This novel is thus a bit of a hybrid but it works quite well.
Inspector Drury is the right kind of detective for a police procedural. He believes in teamwork and he believes in delegating important aspects of the investigation to his subordinates, trusting them to be quite capable of doing their jobs efficiently (and his subordinates are extremely competent). He doesn’t bother with leaps of intuition. If he can’t find a solution then he goes back to square one and combs through the evidence once again. If you’re sufficiently painstaking in your methods you should get results, even if it takes a while.
In the second half when the impossible crime element starts to predominate we see Inspector Drury unexpectedly receiving help from an amateur sleuth (although admittedly an amateur whose own area of expertise is highly relevant to the case in hand). And suddenly we have some theorising rather than just methodical sifting of evidence.
Whether the impossible crime really would have been plausible in 1931 is a question I can’t answer and I don’t really care. It’s a very cool and ingenious murder method and it works for me. The details are perhaps just a little fantastic but for a keen golden age detection enthusiast that just adds to the enjoyment.
Mr Israel Levinsky is of course Jewish but that fact plays virtually no role at all in the story. I doubt if even the most politically correct modern reader could find anything here to worry them.
The Missing Money-Lender is a marvel of intricate and ingenious plotting and while it falls into the scientific detection category it never becomes excessively dry or dull. I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to describe it as an overlooked gem but I found it to be a very satisfying and entertaining read. Highly recommended.