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
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.’
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.
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 fiancé 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
In The Masked Blackmailer the Ryans are employed to track down a blackmailer that is targeting a wealthy,
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.’
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.
‘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.
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.
All published by BlackHeath Classic Crime
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.