One thing you have to say about the mystery novels of R. A. J. Walling (1869-1949) - there’s none of that transcending the genre nonsense to be found in them. They are pure golden age puzzle-plot detective stories. They also happen to be rather good.
The Corpse in the Crimson Slippers was published in 1936 and was the seventh of Walling’s Mr Tolefree mysteries.
This book contains all the ingredients that irritate modern critics, and delight fans of the genre - a country house setting, an intricate plot, disguises and mysterious coded messages. Walling was smart enough to realise that in 1936 a country house murder would need to have something extra, and he provides enough variation to keep things interesting.
Philip Tolefree’s latest case is rather unusual. Author-adventurer Ronald Hudson employs him to crack a code in a letter he has received. He refuses to give Tolefree any information as to what the message might be about. Ordinarily Tolefree would not have accepted a case under such circumstances but he’s intrigued by Hudson’s glamorous and mysterious reputation. He’s even more intrigued by the fact that Hudson is wearing a false beard. The disguise would fool most people, but not a professional like Tolefree. So why would Hudson bother? And who exactly is Hudson anyway?
Even more curious is a barely legible pencil note on the business card given to Tolefree by Hudson. As a result of this note Tolefree finds himself at Old Hallerdon, the Devon country house of industrialist Sir Thomas Grymer. Where, as it so happens, a young man has just committed suicide. What possible connection there could be between Hudson’s coded message and the suicide of a young research chemist is a question Philip Tolefree cannot answer at present. It is however just the sort of question that appeals to Tolefree.
Much depends on the layout of Old Hallerdon and the relative positions of the rooms occupied by various people at the time of the suicide. Which means we need a floor plan. And Walling provides us with not just one but two floor plans. This something that warms my heart. I do love my mystery novels to include maps and/or floor plans.
This adventure is not entirely confined to the country house. There’s also a good deal of racing about in high-powered motor cars.
Tolefree is not your standard golden age amateur detective. He’s a professional private inquiry agent and he has a living to make. He’s clearly a well-educated man - Latin and French quotations do not disturb his equilibrium - but he is equally clearly not a member of the leisured upper classes. In fact he’s pretty solidly middle-class, which also seems to have been true of Walling (who was a successful newspaper editor and publisher).
Walling was a West Country man so it’s no surprise that this novel is set in Devon. That’s the part of England that he knew and it’s always a sound plan for an author to stick to setting with which he is personally familiar.
The plot is delightfully complex, with guns, shell casings, fingerprints (or the unexpected lack thereof), fly-fishing, enigmatic antiquarians, bogus scientists, Frenchmen with impressive moustaches, Tudor domestic architecture and crimson slippers all playing crucial parts.
Walling was an archetypal example of the school of detective fiction labelled as the Humdrum School by critic Julian Symons. Over the past few years the once-despised Humdrums have been gradually rehabilitated and are now once again finding an appreciative readership. Walling is one of the more underrated representatives of this school. It really is time his books were brought back into print. In the meantime the good news is that used copies of his Philip Tolefree mysteries are not too difficult to find, often at pleasingly reasonable prices. The Corpse in the Green Pyjamas and The Corpse with the Grimy Glove are also great fun.
The Corpse in the Crimson Slippers is splendid entertainment. Highly recommended.