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Friday 3 December 2021

The Golden Age: Clifford Whitting (1907-1968)

 by Christine Poulson

Clifford Witting

I must have read hundreds and hundreds of Golden Age crime novels over the years, but I'd never read anything by Clifford Witting and had scarcely heard of him until last year when Galileo Publishing sent me a review copy of Catt Out of the Bag. Galileo Publishing are a splendid small publishing house based in Cambridge and they have embarked on a programme of reprinting Witting's crime novels. Catt in the Bag was first published in 1939 and has a lot to recommend it. To quote from the blurb, 'How, where and why did a man disappear from a group of carol singers on that cold December night in Paulsfield? It hardly seemed likely that he had absconded with the collecting box. But the more that Inspector Charlton found out about the missing person, the less
certain he became that he would find him alive …. ' We learn all about the people in the houses on the carol singers' route as Inspector Charlton goes about unravelling the case. There is even a map - always a welcome feature in a GA novel.

It was a good read for a winter's evening, so I was delighted when two more reprints of novels by Witting arrived a couple of months ago, his first, Murder in Blue (1937), and Measure for Murder (1941). Research online reveals that Witting was born in 1907, died in 1968, and wrote sixteen crime novels that were published between 1937 and 1964. One reason for Witting's fall into undeserved obscurity became apparent when I looked for second-hand copies of his books. They are collector's items and very expensive. His last novel, Crime in Whispers. was priced at £243.23 in hardback. There Was a Crooked Man was £79.95 in paperback. However, I did manage to get hold of a couple through the London Library of which I have been a member almost as long as I have been reading Golden Age crime fiction. It has a collection of GA fiction that must be unrivalled outside the copyright libraries and so I was able to read Witting's Let X be the Murderer (1947) and Dead on Time (1948).

To go back to the beginning, Witting's first novel, Murder in Blue, has a first-person narrator, John Rutherford, a bookseller, who is taking a walk in the rain when he discovers the murdered body of a policeman. Soon Witting's series cop, the urbane Inspector Charlton, is on the scene. Witting was clearly finding his feet with this first one and it does have some flaws. I liked the bookshop setting, and George, Rutherford's irrepressible assistant. The writer's sardonic wit - a feature of Witting's novels - is engaging, but I did get rather bogged down in all the alibis and the timetable surrounding the murder. Clearly Witting was modelling himself here on Freeman Wills Croft. And the narrator does some very silly things, even for a character in a GA novel. I don't think it is a spoiler to say that on spite of that he does survives and goes on to be the narrator of Catt Out of the Bag.

For me Measure for Murder is the pick of the Witting novels that I have so far read. It has an arresting opening. On a morning early in 1940 Mrs Mudge, the charlady, arrives at Lulverton Little theatre, home of the local amateur dramatic society, whose first performance of Measure for Measure is due to take place that evening. She goes into the box office: 'with the still whining vacuum-cleaner dragging behind her like an unhappy dog on a lead she switched on the light. Then at the sight of the seated figure, fallen forward so that the arms hung down, with a dagger driven cruelly up to its ornamented hilt between the shoulder blades, she screamed and ran from the place.' It isn't until halfway through the novel that we learn the identity of the corpse - which took me by surprise - and Inspector Charlton arrives on the scene, perhaps a little late in the day. But I do like a WWII home front setting, and I also love a theatrical mystery, so this was right up my street. I especially enjoyed all the details of backstage squabbling and difficult casting decisions - more really than the actual mystery, the solution to which did come rather out of the blue. Nevertheless, Witting delivers some nice plot twists and it's a highly entertaining read.

Let X be the Murderer was published in 1947. It is a bleak November morning when Sergeant Martin, Inspector Charlton's stalwart sidekick, receives an agitated phone call from Sir Victor Wallingham claiming that a ghost attempted to strangle him in the night. When Inspector Charlton follows this up, he is blocked at every turn, but even so, when the following night does actually end with the discovery of a body, he is taken by surprise. This time I thought I had cracked the case myself, but it turned out that I hadn't. Was I entirely convinced by the solution? Well ... but no matter, I had enjoyed the ride.

Dead on Time (1948) came next and opens with Sergeant Martin celebrating his retirement in an upstairs room at the Blue Boar hotel. The party comes to an abrupt end when in the bar below, Jimmy Hooker, local poacher and pedlar, downs his pint and promptly drops dead. He has been poisoned with potassium cyanide. The mystery is not only who did it, but how was it done? As the case develops it seems to be an impossible crime. It is quite on the cards that an alert reader could answer both those questions - but on this occasion that alert reader was not me.

Sadly, I have to end there as I haven't so far managed to get hold of any of Witting's other novels, though I am certainly going to look out for them. If not quite in the first rank, he is very well worth reading. Possibly his work was rather uneven, partly perhaps because he liked to experiment with the form, but I enjoy his wit, the atmosphere that he conjures up and the characters he creates. Hats off to Galileo Publishing for reviving such an interesting writer. They will be publishing two more of Witting's novels, Midsummer Murder (1937) and Dead on Time (1948) next year. I do hope there will be more after that.


Christine Poulson writes ‘I was a respectable academic, lecturing in art history at a Cambridge college before I turned to crime’ She is the author of a series of suspense novels featuring medical researcher, Katie Flanagan. The most recent, An Air That Kills, was published in November 2019.


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