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Thursday 9 November 2017

Victor L. Whitechurch (1868-1933)

The  Golden Age
Victor L. Whitechurch (1868-1933)
by Carol Westron

Victor Lorenzo Whitechurch was born in 1868. He trained to be a Church of England priest at Chichester Theological College and completed his education at Durham University. He served as a curate from 1891-1904 and married Florence Partridge. In 1904 he became the vicar of St. Michael’s Church, Blewbury, Berkshire. He served as chaplain to the Bishop of Oxford and as an honorary canon of Christ Church. In 1918 he became the Rural Dean of Aylesbury.

Whitechurch’s first literary efforts were religious works: in 1891 he edited The Chronicle of St. George and in 1903 he published his first novel, The Course of Justice. It is interesting to note that in 1904, the same year as he became vicar of St. Michael’s, Whitechurch published The Canon in Residence, the first of his novels that had a crime based plot, although it could as accurately be described as a clerical romance or a social comedy.

Although the action in The Canon in Residence begins in Switzerland, the main story is set in the Cathedral Close of Frattenbury, a fictitious Cathedral and University town that Whitechurch uses many times in his books. The Reverend John Smith is on a short holiday, travelling in Switzerland, when he reads in the newspaper that he has been offered the Canonry of Frattenbury, an important step up in his ecclesiastical career. Unfortunately for Smith, on the same day that he hears this great news he engages in a discussion with a man in his hotel who maintains that parsons know little about real life and real people because, ‘Your office, and the artificial respect for it, prevent you from ever getting hold of thousands of opinions and thoughts, speculations and convictions. You clergymen are in a fool’s paradise.’ The next morning Smith discovers that the stranger has drugged him and stolen all of his clerical clothes and left him with his own garish attire. In a letter the stranger explains that he has done this in order to allow Smith to discover what life is like without the shield of a clerical collar. At first Smith is horrified to appear in public in the stranger’s tasteless clothes and is determined to keep secret the trick played on him. However, soon he begins to enjoy himself and learns several valuable lessons that cause him to take up a very different attitude to life when he takes up his post at Frattenbury. This helps him to win the affection of a sensible and open-minded young woman, Jane Rutland. The senior clerical inhabitants of the Cathedral close are appalled by their new canon with his alarmingly socialist ideals and are secretly delighted when rumours reach them that, while abroad, the Reverend John Smith had been gambling and drinking and behaving in a manner inappropriate to his calling. Because of Smith’s former secrecy he cannot explain that the stranger has used his identity to misbehave. Things go from bad to worse when the stranger’s misdeeds cause Smith to be implicated in a bank robbery but fortunately Jane steps in to extricate him.

The Canon in Residence creates the ground rules for many of Whitechurch’s later settings and themes, and was later adapted for stage and radio.  The fictional city of Frattenbury is mentioned in many of his novels and the clergy feature very prominently in much of his work. Although no clergymen are the villains of his crime novels they are often portrayed as self-satisfied, selfish and snobbish. Also, in this early novel, Whitechurch focuses on the power of clothes to disguise a person’s identity. This is a theme that he returns to again and again and is a prominent part of the plot in his last two crime novels Murder at the Pageant (1930) and Murder at the College (1932.).
Whitechurch was a prolific and varied writer, moving between novels of clerical life, romance, tales of downland life, comedy, crime and serious religious works. In 1911 he published an autobiography, Concerning Himself, The story of an ordinary man. He wrote twelve books in the detective genre and was admired as a writer by Dorothy L. Sayers and Ellery Queen. He is reputed to be one of the first crime writers to have asked Scotland Yard to check his books to ensure his police procedure was correct.

Whitechurch had the dubious distinction of creating the most eccentric amateur detective of the Golden Age, a period in which odd behaviour amongst such sleuths abounds. Whitechurch wrote a series of short stories that were originally published in the Strand Magazine, Railway Magazine, Pearson’s Magazine and Harmsworth’s Magazine and, in this way, he presented an unsuspecting world with Thorpe Hazell, an amateur detective who specialises in railway crimes. Thorpe Hazell far out-classes Hercule Poirot when it comes to faddy and outlandish behaviour. Hazell is a vegetarian who has been known to eat raw onions for lunch and who goes through strange physical activities to aid his digestion no matter where he is or who he is with. Hazell also eats a lot of plasmon, a proprietary health food made of dried milk, and is constantly advocating the health-giving properties of lentils. Whitechurch had declared his intention of creating a fictional detective that bore no resemblance to Sherlock Holmes and it is clear that he had a lot of fun inventing Hazell. In Thorpe Hazell’s investigations into railway mysteries, Whitechurch created what Ellery Queen described as ‘the first of the speciality detectives.’

The stories were published as a book in 1912 under the title Thrilling Stories of the Railway, an interesting title as, later in his novel-writing career, Whitechurch firmly rejects the idea that his crime novels are thrillers. In the foreword to Murder at the College (1933) he states: ‘It is, perhaps, unfortunate that the “Detective Story” is so often confused with the “Thriller,” for it does not at all follow that they are one and the same thing. A “Thriller” by its very name, is a story full of exciting incidents.’ Indeed, very few of Whitechurch’s railway stories could be described as thrilling, many of them are interesting puzzles with a technical twist, while some, such as How the Bishop Kept his Appointment, can be classed as a comedy of manners and do not have any crime content at all. Of the fifteen stories reproduced in Thrilling Stories of the Railway, twelve feature Thorpe Hazell.

Five of the Thrilling Stories of the Railway have been issued as an audio recording by the BBC Worldwide Ltd, read by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Whitechurch retained his fascination with creating unusual short story protagonists and, in 1925, he published The Adventures of Captain Ivan Koravitch, another anthology of short stories, this time featuring a Russian spy who had been part of the Imperial Army.

A year before this anthology, in 1924, Whitechurch published his first straight detective novel, The Templeton Case. The central investigating officer is a young detective sergeant who Whitechurch describes as being ‘an ordinary shrewd police officer, and not as the detective of fiction who seldom, if ever, errs – when everybody else does.’ When a newly arrived traveller is found murdered on his yacht, Detective Sergeant Colson works as part of a police team who hope to solve the case without calling in Scotland Yard. The Templeton Case is a cleverly plotted mystery with a cunning twist at the end. In typical Whitechurch style the investigation is hampered by a well-meaning but self-satisfied Canon of Frattenbury Cathedral who pockets a vital piece of evidence and then produces it at the Coroner’s Inquest, unwittingly causing maximum confusion. His motive is not sinister but is simply because ‘the Canon was entirely ignorant of police methods – they had never come within his sphere. Also, by virtue of his office and dignity, he was accustomed to act on his own initiative.’ In this clever way, Whitechurch prevents the vital evidence from reaching the police until it can do more harm than good, and it is clear he had fun poking gentle fun at the pomposity of senior clergymen at the same time as structuring his plot.

Many of Whitechurch’s novels contain members of the clergy but in 1927 he created an amateur detective vicar that, if Whitechurch had persisted with him and developed his character, could have become one of the more popular clerical detectives. In Crime at Diana’s Pool, the Reverend Harry Westerham is the vicar at Coppleswick, a village some forty miles from London. Westerham is ‘not very tall, squarely built, clean shaven, with a good-humoured, pleasant face – dark brown eyes with an occasional twinkle in them.’ He is a ‘particularly shrewd and capable man’ who makes a habit of observing those around him. When murder is committed in Coppleswick, Westerham intervenes to tactfully guide in the right direction the brash and over-confident detective who is investigating the case.

Crime at Diana’s Pool is less well-structured than The Templeton Case and it seems possible that Whitechurch was enjoying playing with different writing techniques. In The Templeton Case Whitechurch dedicated the book to his daughter, Bertha, ‘who keenly discussed the plot with me when it was in the making,’ but he does not explain whether he had outlined the plot before he started writing.  In the foreword to The Crime at Diana’s Pool, Whitechurch admits that ‘To begin with I had no plot. When I had written the first chapter I did not know why the crime had been committed, who had done it or why it was done.’ Writing into the dark is an excellent technique for crime fiction but it requires more rationalising and tidying up in the editing process than Whitechurch appears to have done. Nevertheless, Harry Westerham stands out as a fictional clerical detective that deserved a longer and more illustrious career.

Shot on the Downs was also published in 1927 and, according to the foreword, the ‘method of construction of the following story follows that of The Crime at Diana’s Pool, that is to say, the author began by describing the scene of the crime, but had no idea of either plot or criminal when he had written the first chapter.’ Although slightly cumbersome, the plot of Shot on the Downs is more successful than that of The Crime at Diana’s Pool

In Shot on the Downs, Whitechurch has a new trick up his sleeve. In the first chapter a stranger discovers a man shot in isolated countryside. He has certain minor crimes in his past and panics. He decides that he dare not report the discovery of the body to the police in case he is blamed for the crime but, being a weak man, he succumbs to temptation and steals the large sum of money the dead man has in his wallet. In this way Whitechurch neatly sets the scene so that the police spend some time, quite reasonably, pursuing a suspect that the reader knows is innocent of the murder – a very clever device, which is done without initially revealing the identity of the foolish stranger to either the reader or the detectives who are trying to solve the case.

Whitechurch died in 1933, following a long and debilitating illness. His final crime novel, Murder at the College (1933) is one of his best. Set yet again in Frattenbury, but this time at the University not the Cathedral, this is a version of the locked room mystery and a clever variation on Chesterton’s The Invisible Man, with a return to Whitechurch’s original idea that when a man is wearing a clerical collar people notice the garb not the man.

Whitechurch’s books are old-fashioned in style and language with many ideas that will make a 21st Century reader cringe, such as references to ‘a pleasant little wife’ and the aforesaid wife’s descent into baby language when teasing her husband, not to mention the acceptance of the fact that a killer was half-Spanish as an excuse for their desire for revenge and planning a cold-blooded killing. Nevertheless, they are pleasant, enjoyable reads and cast a fascinating light on the attitudes of the inter-War years in Britain. It is recorded that Whitechurch used Scotland Yard to vet his police procedurals for accuracy, which in itself is an interesting insight when several of the books hold incidents of police officers breaking into houses and stealing items they think might possibly be useful as evidence.

Many of Whitechurch’s novels and his short story collection have been recently published on Kindle at very reasonable prices. Unfortunately, some of these contain several typos and continuity errors, however, when one grows accustomed to this, they are well worth reading.

Thrilling Stories of the Railway
Kindle: Published by Chios Classics.ASIN: B013KJV0WY

Murder at the Pageant, Downland Echoes and The Canon in Residence
Published by e-artnow. ASIN: B01E452J6E

The Templeton Case
Sold by Amazon Media. ASIN: B00MGYUUDU

The Crime at Diana’s Pool
Published by Ostara Publishing. ASIN: B0046A9S76. ISBN: 978-1906288051

Shot on the Downs
Sold by Amazon Media. ASIN: B00O3RWGBM

Murder at the College
Sold by Amazon Media. ASIN: B00EUCKTSC

Benedict Cumberbatch Reads Thrilling Stories of the Railway

Audio CD. 5 stories. Published by BBC Physical Audio; A&M edition. ISBN: 978-147136616

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 latest book  

The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.
Read a review of Carol’s latest book
The Fragility of Poppies

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