Detectives of the Golden Age
Robin Forsythe (1879-1937)
by Carol Westron
Robin Forsythe (1879-1937)
by Carol Westron
Robin Forsythe was born Robert Forsythe. He was born in Sialkot, in the Punjab, which was then part of British India, and spent the first six years of his life living in foreign countries. Forsythe's father, John 'Jock' Forsythe, was a Scottish soldier who rose from the ranks to become a Captain in the Ninth Queen's Royal Lancers. In 1880, Forsythe's mother, Caroline, died while giving birth to Forsythe's younger brother, Gilbert, and the two small boys were cared for by an ayah. In 1885 the Forsythe family returned to England and in 1890 Jock Forsythe was posted to Ireland, where they remained for three years. In 1893 Jock Forsythe retired and took his sons to live in his old home village of Carmunnock in Scotland. At this time, Robin was fourteen and his brother a year younger and they had lived in, and travelled round, three different countries before settling in Scotland. Forsythe showed early ambition to be a writer and had several short stories and poems published in newspapers and periodicals, but, to earn his living, he had to enter the Civil Service, and worked as an Inland Revenue Assistant of Excise in Glasgow.
In 1909 he married Kate Havord and in 1910 they had a son, John. By 1911, Forsythe and his family were living in Godstone, Surrey, and Forsythe was employed as a Third Class Clerk in the Principal Probate Registry at Somerset House. Around 1921 Forsythe and his wife separated.
Until he reached his late forties, Forsythe was a man who had longed to earn his living by writing but who had curbed this ambition in order to provide an adequate, respectable living for himself and his family in safe but dull employment. In 1927 this image of Forsythe the respectable Civil Servant exploded with the discovery of the Somerset House Stamp Scandal, a story as inventive in its conception as any fictional mystery, although, fortunately, it did not have a murderous climax.
Over a time period of approximately eighteen months, Forsythe master-minded a scheme where he and three other Somerset House clerks removed high-value judicature stamps (stamps used to pay court fees) from documents deposited with the Board of Inland Revenue. The conspirators used acids to remove cancellation marks and sold the stamps at half-price to three solicitors' clerks, who pocketed the difference between the half-price and full-price stamps. Forsythe and his three colleagues divided the profits between them. It has been calculated that the Somerset House conspirators gained £50,000 in modern terms before an auditor became suspicious. Scotland Yard put in place an undercover operation, and forensic examination in the police laboratory soon revealed a vast number of documents had been illicitly tampered with. It was a short step to discovering who was behind this crime. Forsythe and his six associates were arrested. They all admitted to the crimes and threw themselves on the mercy of the court.
The trial took place at the Old Bailey and concluded with sentencing on 7th February 1928. The records of the trial are kept in the National Archives at Kew and can still be read after the payment of a fee. In view of how Forsythe spent his time in prison, it is ironic that the man who pronounced sentence upon him was Sir Henry Dickens K.C., the last surviving son of Charles Dickens. Forsythe was the oldest of the conspirators and the ring-leader and it is not surprising that the judicial wrath fell heaviest on him. He was sentenced to fifteen months imprisonment.
The Somerset House case rocked the British Establishment, not because any violence had been done, but because the men who had committed the crime were so outwardly respectable; indeed many of the younger men had served honourably in the Great War. Perhaps it was a warning that those in power did not want to acknowledge, that ten years after the end of the Great War, such ordinary, hard-working men should be so disillusioned that they were willing to resort to illegal means to take what they could.
In prison Forsythe started to write his first full-length crime novel, Missing or Murdered, which was published soon after his release in 1929. Forsythe was fortunate in the timing of his submission because Bodley Head were eager to find some new detective fiction authors: Agatha Christie had left them in 1926 and Annie Haynes died in early 1929.
Missing or Murdered was the first in a series of five books featuring Algernon Vereker. There is some confusion about Vereker's first name. In Missing or Murdered it is given as Algernon, but in later books it is stated that his real name is Anthony but he is always known as Algernon to his friends.
During the remaining eight years of his life, Forsythe published eight books. Five of these featured Anthony (Algernon) Vereker: Missing or Murdered (1929), The Polo Ground Mystery (1932), The Pleasure Cruise Mystery (1933), The Ginger Cat Mystery (1935), and the The Spirit Murder Mystery (1936.) He also wrote three non-series books: The Hounds of Justice (1930), Murder on Paradise Island (1937) and, under the pseudonym Peter Dingwall, The Poison Duel (1934.) His detective stories drew favourable comments from such notable writers as Dorothy L Sayers and J.B. Priestley.
When writing of The Ginger Cat Mystery (1935), Sayers observed that the 'story is lively and the plot interesting.' Priestley said of the author: 'Mr Forsythe belongs to the new school of detective story writers which might be called the brilliant, flippant school.'
Forsythe's work had moderate success in the U.S., where two Vereker novels were published, and in France, where his first three detective stories were sold in translation.
Forsythe spent the last years of his life living in Suffolk. He was not reconciled with his wife and there has been some speculation about the identity of the 'Elizabeth,' 'Jean' and 'Beatrice' to whom he dedicated three of his Vereker mysteries. His only known companion was his 'dear pal' Terry, an Irish Setter, to whom he dedicated The Ginger Cat Mystery (1935.) Apart from writing, Forsythe spent his time in gardening, art and
touring on ocean liners, all of which occupations served him well for background for his novels.
Sadly, Forsythe's new, creative life did not last long. He died in 1937 of kidney failure.
Forsythe is best remembered for his five series novels featuring Anthony (Algernon) Vereker and it is clear that Forsythe took a great deal of pleasure in creating Vereker, a young man of independent means whose main occupation is painting but who, in Missing or Murdered (1929), gets his first taste of detection and soon becomes addicted to discovering the identity of murderers and how they have constructed their crimes. In Missing or Murdered, the person whose fate is under enquiry is Lord Bygrave, a senior Government official in an undisclosed Ministry. Bygrave is an important man and Scotland Yard has been called in to investigate his disappearance. Detective Inspector Heather of Scotland Yard is 'a heavy-jawed, forceful-looking man in a blue serge suit, holding in his hand a bowler hat which gave ... the swift impression that it was much too small for the owner's head.' Such a man would not seem a likely future partner in detection for Algernon Vereker, and indeed Heather's first impression of Vereker tends towards mild contempt.
Vereker, who is a friend of Lord Bygrave, turns up at the government offices to enquire about his disappearance. 'Mr Algernon Vereker slowly entered the room. Having watched the door close behind him by means of a pneumatic arrangement fitted for that purpose, much as a child would gaze upon some new wonder stumbled upon for the first time in experience, he turned and glanced rapidly at Mr Grierson and then at Detective-Inspector Heather. “Quaint device,” he remarked, pointing with his whangee cane at the door. “Closing mechanism. I could play with it for hours.”' At first Heather is inclined to dismiss Vereker as an 'amiable lunatic.' 'During this interval Inspector Heather's attention was riveted on Mr Algernon Vereker, and he soon came to the conclusion, to put it in his own words, that he was a rum-looking specimen. There was something about the man's appearance that suggested the possession of a vein of eccentricity and a whimsical outlook on life. With such people Inspector Heather was inclined to be impatient. They're crazy; I have no use for them, he would say, and lightly flick them off the face of the particular earth that he himself inhabited.'
Heather soon discovers that Vereker is a quietly-spoken, drawling, simply dressed man, who, as well as his art, is forever becoming obsessed by a new transitory interest, '”He has been... actor, politician, amateur tramp, athlete, vegetarian and gentleman rider in turns. He will take Scotland Yard in his stride so to speak. Only the other day, so Lord Bygrave told me, he was going to equip an expedition to discover King Solomon's mines.”'
Heather's first impressions of Vereker are that he is a 'buffoon' and a 'balm-pot' but he soon finds himself drawn into a parallel investigation with Vereker, who is determined to establish the truth about his friend's disappearance, and Heather's liking and respect for the young man increases immensely. In all the other four investigations that they share, Vereker and Heather enter into a friendly competition, to see whether Vereker's intuition or Heather's routine and common-sense can crack the case. In all five cases, Vereker is assisted by his friend Manuel Ricardo, a young writer. Heather has the whole investigative force of Scotland Yard at his disposal, which gives him an edge when it comes to forensic analysis, but the amateurs always acquit themselves with honour and usually get to the 'winning post' just ahead of Scotland Yard.
Like the artist he is portraying, Forsythe has an eye for line and colour and great skill in portraying beautiful scenery. 'The pilot boat sheered off and the lights of Boulogne swam into view, a diadem of ruby, gold and emerald on the swiftly darkening sky. Away on the port side the lighthouse on Gris Nez exploded intermittently with dazzling radiance.' (The Pleasure Cruise Mystery, 1933.) Or the equally evocative 'The bright morning sun pouring in at the
the open window awakened him. It had dispelled a soft autumn mist which covered the lush grass of the meadows in a silvery sheen of heavy dew.' (The Ginger Cat Mystery, 1935.)
Even when the Vereker stories are set in a country house, the subtleties of the details make them stand out, whether it is the involvement of polo or spiritualism or the aftermath of a pleasure cruise. In Vereker's first adventure, Missing or Murdered, the action moves between country inns and country houses but it seems probable that Forsythe took pleasure in his initial setting of a Government Ministry. As he served out his prison sentence, it must have given him ironic pleasure to write: 'His opinion of Mr Grierson was that he was simply a Government official – a man who is very highly paid for doing very little work. It was unusual of Inspector Heather to make hasty assumptions of this type, but then his mind was working under the compelling influence of a great British tradition – the legend that no work has been or is ever done by a civil servant. In justice to the inspector's fairness, it must be admitted that he coupled Mr Grierson's facile evasion of work and capture of salary with an unquestionable probity, an unimpeachable respectability. He was moderately safe in this, for an official of the Mint has never yet been caught making spurious coin, nor a Treasury official yet run away with a million of the Treasury funds.'
Real life or fiction, revenge can be sweet.
Six of Robin Forsythe's books have been republished by Dean Street Press.
The five Anthony (Algernon) Vereker books:
Missing or Murdered: ISBN: 978-1911095099
The Polo Ground Mystery: ISBN: 978-1911095129
The Pleasure Cruise Mystery: ISBN: 978-1911095145
The Ginger Cat Mystery: ISBN: 978-1911095163
The Spirit Murder Mystery: ISBN: 978-1911095187
All five books are available on KINDLE for 90p-99p.
One stand-alone book, Murder on Paradise Island is also available on KINDLE.
Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher. She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames. Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times. The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her second book About the Children was published in May 2014.
I enjoyed your review. I'm a big fan of classic British mysteries, so it's great to know others are interested. Recently, I've noticed many are available cheaply for Kindle.ReplyDelete