I’ve mentioned my quest for lost classics of the mystery genre before. Well, perhaps “quest” is overstating the matter… let’s call it a “casual search.” I’m generally on the look-out for mysteries that I’ve never encountered before, or authors of whom I’ve never heard. I make lists of possible subjects of interest, and track them down. Or, as is the case with this book, I finally take a volume off my shelf after twenty years to give it a quick read-through.
The Scottish author Ruthven Campbell Todd’s 1946 novel seemed like a safe bet in my hunt for classic mysteries with some substance, some flair, or just something new, different, and entertaining. Unfortunately, despite a promising beginning, Bodies in a Bookshop never rises to the level of greatness, but is still an interesting read. Reprinted by Dover Books in the 1980s as a part of their “Mystery Classics” line, it isn’t a bad book, but “classic” might be stretching a point.
Botanist Max Boyle has gone on a book-buying spree at the beginning of this tale. He has – and we’ve all probably done this – spent more money than he intended and has just one more shop to visit, “a curious little shop in a side-street off the Tottenham Court Road.” There, he makes a stack of additional books that he can’t live without, and it is only when he goes to find the proprietor in order to settle up that he finds the two dead men locked in the office from the outside, and gassed to death. Boyle immediately rings the police.
Fortunately, Boyle is assistant to the temperamental Scottish scholar, Professor John Stubbs, and this isn’t their first murder. Together with official help in the form of Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Reginald Bishop, Stubbs and Boyle attempt to untangle a web of blackmail, pornographic pictures, and stolen books.
It all sounds a tempting formula, but despite having these elements in play, Campbell’s story falls flat. It’s not a question of the writing, or necessarily even the plotting. What fails is the story itself. Campbell has decided on the murderer from the start, and unfortunately, this locks the story into a definite trajectory. And, worse luck, because of who the killer ends up being, the story must, by virtue of the characterizations involved, fall flat in the third act. Where what would really move the story along would be another incident, or even another killing, instead, Bodies in a Bookshop falters. By its ending, I was left very much with the feeling once expressed by T.S. Eliot, on another ending: “not with a bang, but a whimper.”
That being said, there’s some good material in Campbell’s book, enough so that I’ve tracked down the other Dover reprint of an earlier work featuring the same characters, Unholy Dying. For that, hopefully, I won’t need another twenty years’ wait. For Bodies in a Bookshop? Three stars, and apologies for waiting for so long.
Originally reviewed 2 December 2015.
Find your copy of Bodies in a Bookshop, available from booksellers around the world, at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).