Interesting ideas hidden in a detective novel

Posted by Helen Monday, September 03, 2012 ,

As a matter of fact, quite a few detective novels hide interesting ideas, particularly political ones with those that display them for all to see being the least readable ones. I was alerted to a little known writer of the thirties, R. C. Woodthorpe, by Martin Edwards, who is considerably better known as a writer and a critic. The particular book he mentioned was Silence of a Purple Shirt or, as it is known in the United States, Death Wears a Purple Shirt.

Dorothy L. Sayers was very complimentary about Woodthorpe's books and rightly so: they are highly amusing and the writing is sly, witty and polished. The plot of this particular one is, on the other hand, a little lame. The beginning is excellent in a Buchanesque way. Thee events coincide: the Leader (always referred to with a capital L) of a rather noxious movement, Keep Britain Free, whose members sport purple shirts, has been arrested for no apparent crime; a young boy has disappeared with his nurse and, almost certainly, it is a case of kidnapping; and an important member of the Purple Shirts has been murdered with another, less important member, being arrested on serious circumstantial evidence. The latter happens to be the estranged husband of the niece of Nicholas Slade, a writer whose satirical output is considerably less well known than his first, somewhat romantic novel, The Gods Are Just.

Nicholas Slade and his confidential clerk, Alfred Hicks, start an investigation into the murder as they both assume that the nephew by marriage could not have committed the crime.

Thereafter the plot disintegrates despite some very funny descriptions and episodes as well as a few barbed comments about the literary world. The solution to the crime(s) is neat though not altogether surprising but the holes in the plot are too big to overlook. Several important characters's behaviour remains unexplained; the reason for so much of the action in the past and the present taking place in a strange but delightful hotel on an island is not given; hints about certain people being possibly connected to the Purple Shirts are never followed up.

Most frustratingly we never find out how it is that a ridiculous organization that is full of self-important and childish characters, has no money and cannot impose discipline on its members despite the sub-military behaviour manages to build up a superb intelligence service. Whatever the Home Secretary does, wherever he goes, whatever instructions he gives, the Purple Shirt leaders know within the hour. Is there somebody close to the HS, or A Certain Person, as he is variously referred to, who is a member of the organization? If so, we never learn the truth.

There are, however, some interesting aspects to the novel. Nicholas Slade goes to the headquarters of the Keep Britain Free movement in Hampstead and finds that he dislikes them more than he had done before. Though the movement is a clear reference to Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists (founded in 1932 and the book came out in 1934) the political ideology that is propounded at their headquarters are similar to those one would have heard in various Communist organizations of the period. (Well, it's not like there is that much difference between national and international socialism.) The Leader's comment about writers becoming as important as dustmen, no more but no less so, in the new order remind one of Lenin rather than Mussolini or Hitler and the notion of the corporate state being of far greater importance than the individual is central to all those isms and ologies.

Listening to the mildly insane burbling of the Purple Shirts, Nicholas Slade manages to formulate to himself what it is he does not like:
Slade, feeling that the more he heard of the Purple Shirt programme the less he liked it, sat on. He sat patiently, and gloomily envisaged the promised new State, which would deprive him of his cherished Times, employ him in writing propaganda, and, if he jibbed, or incautiously made a joke at its expense, hand him over to a soft of drumhead court-martial and have him put against a wall and shot. It was a dismal prospect. 
Slade was not over much in love with the established order of things. Indeed, he had satirized it in many of his books. But there you were ... That was exactly where the shoe pinched. Slade could satirize the existing State, cartoonists could caricature it, the writers of funny columns could lampoon it ... and no one seemed to mind. 
Slade and Woodthorpe can see the difference in the basics but, for all of that, can also see that not everything is rosy in the garden.

After all, the plot is triggered off by a stupid and, probably, illegal order by the Home Secretary, not a man to be admired, to arrest the Purple Shirts' Leader, who bears the unlikely name of Duke Benedict (this was four years before P. G. Wodehouse's glorious creation, Roderick Spode) for nothing at all. Eventually, after several months in prison, he is charged with making seditious speeches. The only immediate outcome is that the Purple Shirts suddenly become quite popular as they are seen to be victims of the Establishment.

Slade is shocked but nor surprised to find that the political establishment that includes the Home Secretary and Scotland Yard is prepared to pervert the course of justice and to let an innocent man go to the gallows in order to protect the real killer's identity. In the end, the innocent man is released but the real killer goes unpunished except, possibly, in his own conscience. This is not a novel that supports the powers that be or the existing order of things. What it does support is the idea of how they ought to be.


  1. I'm very glad you enjoyed this novel, and thanks for such a full and incisive review of it. You've given a very fair and helpful evaluation of the book's strengths and weaknesses.

  2. Helen Says:
  3. Thank you, Martin. I shall now read The Public School Murder

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