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Sunday, 6 November 2016

J.C.Lenehan (1889-1943)

Detectives of the Golden Age
J.C.Lenehan (1889-1943)
by Carol Westron

One problem with many of the less famous writers of the Golden Age is that there is little known about their lives and sometimes no photographs of them are available. This is the case with J. C. Lenehan; many details of his life and death are lost in the mists of time – or in some records office which has not yet been explored.

John Christopher Lenehan was born in December 1889 in County Longford, Ireland. He was brought up in rural Ireland and educated at a national school. His family were farmers but Lenehan’s ambition was to be a teacher and he trained at the Marlborough Training College for Teachers in Dublin. His teaching career was disrupted by the First World War, as were his plans to marry Linda Selina Fletcher, the daughter of a lace manufacturer from Long Eaton, Derbyshire.

Lenehan was designated as a driver in the Royal Field Artillery and fought on the Somme. He survived the war and returned to fulfil his ambition to become a primary school teacher and to marry Linda. It is impossible to know whether Lenehan felt deeply conflicted at this time, torn between his Irish upbringing and his duty as a British soldier. He was born and brought up in a Catholic county and attended a training college in Southern Ireland. What is more, the Easter Uprising in Ireland took place in April 1916, while Lenehan was fighting in France, only shortly before the terrible Battle of the Somme began. Perhaps it is not surprising that, having married his English bride in 1919, the couple moved to live near her family home in Sandiacre, Derbyshire. Here Lenehan became a primary school teacher. In 1923 their only child, John Richard Lenehan, was born.

Lenehan started to write detective stories in the evening, while still teaching in the day, a pattern of work that, as far as we know, continued for all of his writing life. In 1929 his first two novels were published by Herbert

The Marked Pistol was published in April 1929 and The Tunnel Mystery in October 1929. The Tunnel Mystery
was the only one of Lenehan’s books to be also published in America. Between 1929 and 1943, Lenehan wrote twelve detective novels and one light fiction novel, The Joyful Jays (1941), which was a humorous book in the style of P. G. Wodehouse. Lenehan’s final book, Driven to Death, was published posthumously in 1944, although it seems likely the book was written before the Second World War as it has no mention of air raids, rationing and black-outs and other features of British wartime life. Although Lenehan was fifty when the war broke out, it seems probable that he had re-enlisted in the army as he died in North Africa in 1943.

Although Lenehan was a popular writer in his time, he was never one of the best known crime writers of his generation. His books have not been reprinted in paper form and the early books are now collector’s items. Fortunately some of his books have been republished as e-books and they are fascinating reading for those who like period detective stories and those who are interested in 1930s life and social attitudes.

The first of Lenehan’s detective novels, The Marked Pistol, has not yet appeared in e-book form but I was fortunate enough to find a contemporary review of the book, which had been published in the Singapore newspaper, The Straits Times on 31st May 1929. This very comprehensive review describes the investigation into the murder of a man called Dennison who has been acting as trustee for a young woman and is curiously reluctant to hand over the jewellery, worth £10,000, that he has been keeping for her until she came of age. When Dennison is discovered shot by his own pistol, a lethal weapon which bears a distinctive mark, the most obvious suspect is the young woman’s guardian, Colonel Somers. However, in true Golden Age tradition, there are many other people with motives to kill the murdered man. In many ways this first novel sounds like a traditional detective story of the time, even including the gathering together of suspects in a crowded study to finally reveal the culprit and a young couple whose future happiness depends on the truth being revealed. However, as in many of Lenehan’s later works, the book seems to stray into crime thriller territory, with an chase scene across Ireland. It also contains an incompetent local detective force and a competent detective from Scotland Yard, another motif that Lenehan often returned to, possibly with good reason as the local police forces had little experience with solving convoluted murder cases and possessed very little in the way of forensic or technical expertise at this time. Certainly The Straits Times’ reviewer was generous in his praise of The Marked Pistol, describing it as, ‘An exciting story bristling with sensational incidents’ which gave the reader ‘an insight into modern methods of crime investigation.’

In The Tunnel Mystery (1929) Lenehan introduces the first of his series detectives, Detective Inspector Kilby of Scotland Yard, ‘a tall military-looking man with a clipped moustache.’ However, Kilby does not appear until a third of the way through the book and the initial enquiries are left to Inspector Parker of the local police and his subordinate, the bright and eager Police Constable Brent. The crime is a strange and complex one: Hatton Garden diamond merchant David Hyde is travelling back from Yorkshire to London, bearing with him a valuable diamond necklace that he has just purchased. He travels by train, in a third-class carriage because he feels that this will make him less obvious as a target for thieves. Several other people also seat themselves in the compartment. The train goes through a tunnel and, when it emerges on the other side, Hyde has been shot dead. Nobody in the carriage will admit to having heard the shot and the angle of the wound makes it impossible that any of them could have shot him, what is more, the weapon is nowhere to be found. Later, when the police search Hyde’s body, the diamond necklace he was carrying has disappeared.

Lenehan depicts Kilby as a detective with great skills both of imagination and the ability to ask the right questions to illuminate the truth. ‘Kilby’s powers of mental imagery were highly developed. As though he beheld it with his physical eyes, he saw Mr Hyde sitting in the corner away from the door, visioned Freda Lowe enter and seat herself nearly opposite, with the attachĂ©-case between herself and the end of the seat. And he saw all the others follow and dispose themselves in their various positions.’... ‘So skilful was his questioning that Kilby received an account of practically every word that had been spoken.’

Detective Inspector Kilby is so concerned about being a man of honour that he won’t deceive the suspects he is questioning, even if it is the only way of getting at the truth. Fortunately this self-righteous attitude slips slightly in The Mansfield Mystery (1932), the third book featuring him, and he does mislead a suspect, which makes him a more effective investigator.

The structure of The Tunnel Mystery is intriguing. It is a not an inverted story ( a story that starts with the reader observing the killer committing the crime and then follows the investigation as the detective unravels the separate strands) but it does follow the criminals’ actions and conversations in a way that gives the reader a lot more information than the investigators receive. Many of Lenehan’s later books have the same structure, especially the Kilby novels. This prevents the books from being simple whodunnits but, in my opinion, it does not detract from the enjoyment of the story. Lenehan also includes a thriller aspect to his detective novels, in the case of The Tunnel Mystery the story reaches its conclusion with a dramatic car chase:
‘The Falcon tore through the storm in the wake of the fugitives. Darkened towns and villages became bright for a moment or two, but quickly retreated backwards into the darkness again. At last Parker applied the brakes with such suddenness that the car skidded, and, had he been a less experienced driver, there is little doubt that the Falcon and her occupants would have come to an untimely end over the cliffs. Three police officers stood on the road, looking like three wet, shiny seals. The car came to a throbbing standstill and one of the officers – a superintendent – hurried over to the driver. “Chase over!” he yelled with dramatic terseness.’

Lenehan wrote two more books with Kilby as the main investigator: The Silecroft Case (1931) and The Mansfield Mystery (1932.) The Silecroft Case can be considered a sequel to The Tunnel Mystery. Many of the former protagonists appear and, as before, Detective Inspector Kilby is in charge of the case, with Brent, now a Detective
Constable at Scotland Yard, to assist him.
Lenehan’s books are of the era in which they were written and there are many assumptions and attitudes that leap out at 21st Century readers, such as the use of the term ‘Orientals’ to refer to two Eastern protagonists who play a minor part in Boston Belle Meets Murder (1935) and the underlying, automatic assumption that these people are far less trustworthy than a decent, white British citizen. When reading the Lenehan books, many of the attitudes reminded me of the Biggles books by W. E. Johns, the first of which were published in the same decade. After all, Lenehan was a primary school teacher.

Far stranger than the typical attitudes of the 1930s, which can be found in many books of that time, was Lenehan’s sympathy, indeed empathy, for many of the criminals his detective was striving to identify. Of course, many detective story writers have felt sympathetic towards the killer and wished to give them an easier way out than the hangman’s noose. Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey often finds the thought of sending a man to the gallows almost unbearable and occasionally allows a killer the option of meeting his death by other means, but he does not let the murderer go. In Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934) Poirot does let killers go free when he does not reveal the true solution of the crime to the authorities, but that is because the man who was murdered was guilty of an evil, unforgivable crime with wide-ranging consequences. In The Poisoned Chocolates Case (1929) by Anthony Berkeley, a group of amateur ‘criminologists’ get together at their private crime club to solve a murder that has baffled the police and several of them express admiration for the skill with which the killer made his plans and covered his tracks. However, these are amateurs and it is not their job to identify, gather evidence and convict the killer; that is the job of the Scotland Yard detective involved and he takes it seriously.

In Lenehan’s books he often seems to care more for the murderer than he does the victim or those unfortunate, innocent people who are suspected of committing the crime. This is perhaps more forgiveable when the victim is a moneylender, a class of people that Lenehan loathes and more than once declares ‘open season’ on in his books. However, in
The Tunnel Mystery the victim is a legitimate businessman, ruthless in making a good deal, but totally honest and reputable, who is deliberately murdered by a professional criminal in order to rob the victim of his property. As part of the plot to rob him, Mr Hyde’s honesty is also called into question by a lying criminal conspirator, an action that does not seem to affect the ultra-honourable Detective Inspector Kilby’s sympathy for the master criminal. What is more, the victim has a daughter whom he loved and who loved him and she is left desolate by her father’s murder, especially as her fiancĂ© is suspected of being the murderer.

Kilby appears to not merely admire the guile of the master criminal in a professional way but to feel great empathy for him and even more for his co-conspirator, who was part of the murder plot before and after it took place and, indeed, facilitated it. He declared that this person had not (as far as he knew) killed anybody and ignored the fact that this was just by chance, as the contingency plan would have made the conspirator the actual murderer. He also argued that the conspirator had made up for their part in the murder of Mr Hyde by saving the life of another victim, (who would not have been in peril in the first place if it wasn’t for the original murder.)

The first two Kilby books,
The Tunnel Mystery and The Silecroft Case are tied together and a few pages before the end of the latter, Kilby declares, ‘“One has to do one’s duty, even when it happens to be disagreeable.”’
However, although a less charismatic, lower-class character may be arrested by him and have to stand trial on a lesser charge, Kilby decides that he has not enough evidence to bring Mr Hyde’s killer to trial, even though he had been sure enough of his grounds to attempt an arrest a year previously, at the end of The Tunnel Mystery. Basically at the end of The Silecroft Case, Kilby and Brent conspire to pervert the course of justice, and the murderers of Mr Hyde, the innocent diamond merchant, are allowed to continue without any charges brought against them. In 1933, in The Masked Blackmailer, Lenehan changes his series detective from a police officer to a pair of private investigators. Peter Ryan is a retired police officer who now augments his pension by taking on private investigations, although he never touches divorce, which he describes as ‘a filthy business.’ Peter Ryan is ‘a muscular-looking man of about fifty, with a fresh complexion and a cheery smile.’ Peter is assisted in his investigations by his nephew, Charlie, whose father (Peter’s brother) had emigrated to the United States before Charlie was born. Charlie has come to England to work with his uncle. Fortunately, Charlie’s father is an  exceedingly wealthy man, so he doesn’t have to worry about money when looking into anything that interests him. Charlie is a lively young man with ‘a pair of sparkling eyes and a face that was now faintly freckled. In summer it would be speckled like a turkey’s egg. He had a mop of near-ginger hair with a tuft sticking up at the crown. Nothing would induce this tuft to lie flat for any length of time.’ His uncle’s nickname for him is ‘Copper-nob.’

In The Masked Blackmailer the Ryans are employed to track down a blackmailer that is targeting a wealthy,
unscrupulous businessman, but the affair soon gets entangled with murder and the police become involved. Although they have evidence that is almost certainly relevant to both crimes, the Ryans have few scruples about keeping this to themselves.
‘Charlie tugged at his unruly tuft of hair. His gaze was apparently fixed on his shining shoes.
“Uncle,” he declared, suddenly looking up. “I think we ought to keep this case in our own hands – our part of the case, I mean, It’ll be fine fun solving it.”
“And what about delaying the course of justice, my boy?” Peter’s expression was less grave than his words.
“Bosh!” said Charlie inelegantly. “Delaying the course of justice indeed! Just wait till you and I get properly started, and the police won’t see our heels for dust. Seriously, I think we’d do better on our own.”’
This seems both ungrateful and unwise, as the Ryans are allowed a remarkable degree of access to police investigations. However, it seems probable that Charlie’s unwillingness to involve the police had something to do with the unexpected involvement in the case of Boston Belle, an American law-breaker that he had previously encountered in the United States. ‘Boston Belle was the cleverest engraver and most skilful counterfeiter that the States had ever encountered. Because women engravers are rare, she had escaped suspicion for a long time. In the end, however, she had become a hunted creature.’

It is clear that as much as Charlie Ryan is obsessed with Boston Belle, so too was her creator, J. C. Lenehan. Belle is the Ryans’ adversary again in Death Dances Thrice (1933) and Carnival of Death (1934) but in the latter novel her illegal actions have tragic consequences and Belle decides to forsake her life of crime. She joins the Ryans’ detective business as their assistant and in Boston Belle Meets Murder (1935) she helps investigate a case.

When Boston Belle abandons crime she reverts to her real name, Isabel Fraser, but she is the same strong, clever woman she always was, and one who is ready to use her physical charms to help get information and concessions, whichever side of the law she is working on.

However it must be said that she employs her wiles against the men – and in 1930s Britain their were many – who attempt to objectify her as a plaything. Belle is a very attractive woman and well aware of it.
‘Charlie’s ‘gaze returned to his companion, and, for a moment or two, he watched her dancing, deep-set eyes and the impish smile that played about her full, red lips.
“You’ve a rather high opinion of your charms; haven’t you, Belle?”
“And why shouldn’t I have?”
Hands resting lightly on her lap, the girl leaned back in her chair as if demanding his further inspection. Her flame-coloured frock seemed moulded to her alluring figure. Her hair was black, with a rare bluish tinge. Charlie had never been able to decide whether her eyes were violet or black. Actually they were a very deep brown.’ (Boston Belle Meets Murder, 1935)
Belle’s former life of crime has honed her senses and she is a shrewd observer of small things that often prove to be major clues. Also she has a cynical understanding of the male mind , which means that she is a shrewder judge of character than the men she is working with and she is better equipped to evaluate all the suspects. ‘“That’s just it, Charlie. Had she been a robust man or even a mannish, ill-favoured woman, you would have pounced on her immediately. But just because she is such a little bit of a thing... Oh, you men! It’s so very, very easy to lead you by the nose.”’ (Boston Belle Meets Murder, 1935)

Like Detective Inspector Kilby, Belle does not feel any necessity to bring the killer to justice if she decides that she would rather not do so – indeed in one case she actually facilitates the criminal’s escape. Charlie Ryan is slightly concerned about the morality of this but the detective in charge was obviously trained in the same Scotland Yard department as Detective Inspector Kilby and tacitly approves of Belle’s actions. To be fair, in this case the victim was a particularly obnoxious person – a crooked financier who had defrauded hundreds if not thousands of people. He was also  womaniser who took an unpleasant interest in pornography. In the other cases featuring the Ryans that I have read the murderer is discovered and does not escape the consequences of their actions, not even in Deadly Decree (1936), where the Ryan Detective Agency teams up with Detective Inspector Kilby to investigate murder following a particularly scandalous divorce. Even when Boston Belle was on the wrong side of the law, she and Charlie Ryan had a laughing, flirtatious relationship, which, once she has abandoned her life of crime and joined him in his work, blossoms into a love affair and marriage.

Lenehan’s novels are very much products and reflections of the society in which he lived and worked, with some shrewd and subtle observations about political and social matters at that time, and a delightful, strong female protagonist. In my opinion, his books, especially the later ones, are enjoyable, well structured and definitely worth reading.

At this time there are seven J. C. Lenehan detective novels available on Kindle.
All published by BlackHeath Classic Crime
The Tunnel Myster ASIN: B010MNXPMY
The Silecroft Case ASIN: B010MSXZ2O
The Mansfield Mystery ASIN: B010MSY4DI
The Masked Blackmailer ASIN: B010MS9RVC
Boston Belle Meets Murder ASIN: B010MSY2I0
Deadly Decree ASIN: B010MSY5LE
Driven to Death ASIN: B010MSY6SG

For a complete list of all his books visit

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, and The Fragility of Poppies was published .May 2016.

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