(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Eden Phillpotts began his novel-writing career with a work of detective fiction—The End of Life (1891)—and produced many other detective novels and short stories over the course of the next sixty years. Of the twenty-some works in the detective genre, only The Grey Room (1921), “Found Drowned” (1931), and The Red Redmaynes (1922) have earned much positive critical attention. Never an innovator, Phillpotts brought a solid knowledge of craft and a fine eye for detail to his detective fiction. While some of the plot complications and their resulting denouements stretch credibility to the breaking point, his painstaking delineations of the people and places of the Moorlands give his work a ring of authenticity. In fact, Phillpotts’s detective novels are, for the most part, examples of the work of a local colorist whose story lines are really subservient to his celebration of the region.

Southwest England was the area to which Phillpotts’s mother brought him from India in 1865, and southwest England, specifically Devon and Cornwall and the area known as Dartmoor, is the place to which he returned when his writing gave him independence. For sixty years, he wrote about the place and its people. Agatha Christie, whose work Phillpotts encouraged when she was very young, dedicated Peril at End House (1932) to Phillpotts, whom she called “the Hardy of the Moors.”

The use of setting as a major element in mystery and detective fiction was certainly not a new idea; in the work of writers such as Raymond Chandler, for example, setting can play a major part in shaping the motivation of characters and in establishing tone. In Phillpotts’s fiction, however, setting has little impact on the characters. Instead, it is often the subject of long, slow passages in which the writer rhapsodizes about the physical beauty of a particular place or geographic feature. These passages seldom have anything to do with driving the narrative or complicating the plot. It is as if the writer pauses in mid-story to comment on a matter unrelated to the action. That these passages are carefully written, providing accurate pictures of the region Phillpotts knew so well, does not mitigate their deadening effect on the story itself.

The Thing at Their Heels

The detectives with whom Phillpotts peopled his novels fall into two rather general categories: those who are inexperienced and given to a number of false starts and those who are much older and much less naïve about the potential for wrongdoing that lies just beneath the surface of many an innocent-looking person. The writer’s worldview as evidenced by these creations seems not to differ significantly from the standard values of early twentieth century English society. Villains are villains primarily because of flaws in their characters and not because of flaws in their social environment. Persons whose views differ markedly from those of...

(The entire section is 1213 words.)