J. S. Fletcher Essay - Critical Essays


In the late 1800’s, J. S. Fletcher began writing short fiction. Within a decade, he published six volumes of stories; one of them was The Adventures of Archer Dawe, Sleuth-Hound (1909), an undistinguished collection of puzzlers. Much better is Paul Campenhaye, Specialist in Criminology (1918), ten stories narrated by a likable private investigator who not only labels himself a specialist in criminology but also says that he is not a detective and has nothing to do with the police. Indeed, Campenhaye works with only a clerk and a mysterious man about London, and some of his cases do not lead to police or legal action, partly because of his generosity toward women. Though most of the stories are set in London—about which Campenhaye is singularly knowledgeable—some cases take him as far north as Yorkshire. (Fletcher favored London and his beloved Yorkshire for his settings throughout his career.) A master of disguise as well as an astute observer of people and places, he nevertheless succeeds purely by chance, as in “The Champagne Bottle” and “The Yorkshire Manufacturer.” There is little doubt that Fletcher had Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes in mind when he wrote the Campenhaye stories, but such imitation was commonplace with aspiring detective-fiction writers at the time.

Not until 1931 did Fletcher again create a serial sleuth. Ronald Camberwell, a London private eye, debuted in Murder at Wrides Park and was the narrator-sleuth in ten more novels, two of which were published after Fletcher died in 1935.

Murder of the Ninth Baronet

A typical example of the Camberwell series is Murder of the Ninth Baronet (1932). Fletcher whodunits frequently center on a disappearance that is followed years later by an unexpected reappearance. In this novel, however, John Maxtondale disappears again, within a day of his return after a decades-long disappearance. As a young man, the eldest son of a Warwickshire baronet, he had eloped with Lucy, a tenant farmer’s daughter, and completely dropped out of sight. Because worldwide efforts to locate him were fruitless, John’s younger brother Stephen inherited the title when the baronet died, but with the provision that if John ever returned, both title and estate would revert to him. The mystery of John’s second disappearance is solved when his body is found on the family estate. Among the several suspects are Sir Stephen and his son Rupert (John was childless), a dismissed workman, and a man who years earlier had vowed vengeance on John for his elopement with Lucy. When this would-be avenger and Sir Stephen are murdered, the focus of attention shifts to the dismissed workman, who has disappeared. Then Camberwell and his team learn that Rupert has secretly married the gamekeeper’s daughter and is living part of the time in London with her and their son under assumed names. With its action shifting between country and city, the book proceeds at a rapid pace, each brief chapter full of stirring action and surprising revelations. Camberwell’s efforts not only take him from country to city and back again but also have him shifting back and forth between the past and the present. The basic elements of the narrative—property, an inheritance, and long-standing rivalries—are commonplace, but Fletcher’s deft handling results in a compelling mind teaser.

The Ebony Box

The Camberwell books were so popular that although Fletcher retired the sleuth after eight “Case-books,” he brought him back within a year. The first of the new series was The Ebony Box (1934). Having retired from the detective life, Ronald Camberwell—a self-described “dull and retiring old bachelor” of thirty-one—becomes steward of a Yorkshire baronet’s estate. Within a month, however, his master is dead, having mistakenly drunk potassium cyanide, which was stored in a brandy bottle in his photographic laboratory. This death initiates a series of events that center on a missing ebony box filled with jewels and negotiable securities that Sir John had given to his mistress. Camberwell, having lost his post as steward after a conflict with the family solicitor, drifts back to his old firm and joins the search for the box and for the baronet’s missing valet. This difficult and dangerous quest, which includes local police and Scotland Yard, leads to the discovery of the murdered valet as well as the...

(The entire section is 1813 words.)