Classic Crime

Miles Burton

Cecil John Charles Street, (1884 – 1964) was known to his family and friends as John Street. He began his military career as an artillery officer in the British army. During the course of World War I, he became a propagandist for MI7, in which role he held the rank of Major. After the armistice, he alternated between Dublin and London during the Irish War of Independence as an Information Officer for Dublin Castle.

Street produced two series; one under the name of John Rhode featuring the forensic scientist Dr. Priestley and another under the name of Miles Burton featuring the investigator, Desmond Merrion. The Dr. Priestley novels were among the first to feature scientific detection of crime, such as analysing the mud on a suspect's shoes. Desmond Merrion is an amateur detective who works with Scotland Yard's Inspector Arnold.

John Rhode/Miles Burton produced over 140 titles. Critic and author Julian Symons placed this author as a prominent member of the "Humdrum" school of detective fiction. ‘Most of them came late to writing fiction, and few had much talent for it. They had some skill in constructing puzzles, nothing more, and that the detective story properly belonged in the category of riddles or crossword puzzles.’
Despite this damning judgement, John Rhode’s and most particular those by Miles Burton are well-sought after and command high prices for 1st editions.

Review: Death in the Tunnel

I have wanted to read Miles Burton for a number of years. For some years this author has been on my radar, but the high cost of his books stopped me from experiencing his work. Thankfully, the British Library and Martin Edwards – who together have become a sort of dynamic literary duo, have bought out two Miles Burton titles – this one and ‘Secret of High Eldersham’. As always the covers on these editions are colourful and eye-catching, perfectly evoking the feel of the Golden Age of Crime Fiction.

‘Death in the Tunnel’ starts with the death of Sir Wilfred Saxonby in a locked compartment early on a November evening. There is some who think Sir Wilfred committed suicide as nobody could gain access to him, but evidence uncovered seems to point to a very clever murder having been played out under cover of darkness in a long tunnel – none more significant as a mysterious red light which caused the train to slow down.

Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard is put on the case. As he tries to unravel the complexities of the case, Arnold calls in his friend, Desmond Merrion who is an expert amateur criminologist. They discover that Sir Wilfred was a direct man who had upset many people in his life, even some members of his family.

Burton lays before his reader a very complex puzzle which throws up several different scenarios. I do suggest that although this is a ‘lite’ read, I stress that concentration is required here as Buxton serves up many different alternatives before delivering the real solution to this tricky crime.

As is normal with these Golden Age crime novels, the puzzle is the real thrust of the book rather than characterisation. Arnold, Merrion and others are merely sketches rather than boldly out-lined, but many who enjoy thrillers from this era know what to expect. I am not saying the book is any lesser for this, but deep thoughts are not the menu of the day here. However, the puzzle of the case kept me thinking and then re-calculating over and over again, leading me to greatly enjoy my first reading of Miles Burton. The language used is typical and of its time. There is much ‘I think it was like this…’ and ‘my thoughts on the matter are…’ which alerted me that another possible scenario was going to be expounded.

Although Julian Symons debunked the work of John Rhode/Miles Burton, this is a far superior crime novel than many others from this era. I cheer the great work the British Library is accomplishing with this varied and fascinating series. Sometimes it is a pleasure to step back in time and see how cases were solved purely through mental ability and tenacity without the help of modern technology. This is a wonderful read from the 1930’s. Enjoy!

Reviewed by: C.S.

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