Review published on March 5, 2017.
It’s 1913 and the threat of war in Europe looms large. Fortunately, young barrister John Farringdale is able to distract himself from the pervasive mood of doom and gloom by accompanying his cousin Eric Tallard Foster on a jaunt to Aberleven, a fishing hamlet on the north coast of England. Foster’s love of archaeology had led to his becoming acquainted with Professor Tolgen Reisby, an authority on ancient burial practices, and he regularly visits the professor and his family at Scarweather, an isolated house some distance from Aberleven.
While proud that his cousin has found favour with as learned a gentleman as Tolgen Reisby, Farringdale is worried that the young man’s obvious friendship with Reisby’s attractive young wife Hilda might lead to trouble. He is therefore keen to visit Scarweather himself and assess the situation. Along with his friend Frederick Ellingham, yet another fellow of prodigious intellect, Farringdale makes the trip to Scarweather and he is pleased to see that all seems well. Reisby demonstrates his indefatigable love of digging up burial mounds and collecting funereal paraphernalia, although local superstitious has so far prevented him from excavating a tantalising local tumulus known as the Devil’s Hump, while both his wife and Eric Foster are the very models of propriety.
However, something sinister is certainly afoot at Scarweather and, although he does not know it at the time, Farringdale’s life is going to be intertwined with the lives of the Reisbys and other figures from Aberleven society for years to come.
John Farringdale relates the case in Scarweather and he acknowledges that he acted in the Watson role alongside Frederick Ellingham’s Sherlock Holmes. He is pleasant company and his relative lack of insight into matters (for, despite his avowed interest in “the psychology of the criminal”, he cannot or perhaps will not recognise the truth of the matter for a shockingly long time) allows the reader to puzzle out Ellingham’s theories. Ellingham himself makes a good central detective; he has enough esoteric knowledge to make seemingly miraculous deductions and he is just vague enough in his speech to keep everyone guessing. While it seems unlikely that Sherlock Holmes would take fifteen years to assess whether a crime has been committed and then take the steps he deems necessary for justice to be served, the circumstances of war and the mannered society of the time perhaps allow Ellingham a little leeway in that regard.
In fact, the central pull of Scarweather is not really “whodunit”, since the outline of the crime and the likely suspect(s) become clear quite early on, but rather how Ellingham and, to a lesser extent, Farringdale remain dedicated to the puzzle for fifteen long years. Of course, some of that time is spent at war and recovering from wounds received, so it’s not like they were deliberately pursuing a leisurely course of deduction. Further, knowing something and proving it are quite different things, and Ellingham really has to put all his little grey cells to work on the matter. Saying that, it’s hard to agree with all the choices he makes during his investigation, with one decision certainly proving rather cruelly perverse. Scarweather is the only book to feature Frederick Ellingham, although it would have been a good starting point for a detective series, so it’s impossible to say whether his deductive skills and his humanity would have been improved through further investigations.
Overall, Scarweather is yet another intriguing addition to the British Library Crime Classics collection. It does not feature the most complex of plots, but it does offer an insightful portrayal of the psychology of the criminal mind and the consequences of crime. Farringdale, Ellingham and all those in the vicinity of Scarweather have to live under a cloud of suspicion and distrust for years, and Anthony Rolls does a great job of portraying the impact that this has on all their characters. Although the central investigation takes a long time to reach its climax, it still features a few bursts of action (and some class-based humour) and the final confrontation is definitely tense. Scarweather is an unusual detective novel and one that is certainly worth a read, particularly for fans of Golden Age crime.
Erin Britton 4/3
Scarweather by Anthony Rolls
British Library Publishing 9780712356640 pbk Feb 2017