Bodies in a Bookshop – RT Campbell (1946)

It seems that this will be the second installment of my “I thought that this was a locked room mystery, but was mistaken” series.  I read this entire book thinking that it was featured on the Roland Lacourbe list of top impossible crimes, and was a bit stumped about how this could be considered a locked room mystery.  In hindsight, I believe that I bought this book around the same time that I acquired T.H. White’s Darkness at Pemberley (which is featured on the list), the books sat together on my TBR pile, and over time my mind got mixed up.

Bodies in a Bookshop does actually feature a murder in a locked room, but eschewing impossible crime tradition, the room is locked from the outside.  Two men are found dead in the backroom of a bookshop, having succumbed to a leak from a faulty gas ring.  There’s a bit of a question as to why the men didn’t simply open a window, and foul play is somewhat obvious given that the office door was latched from the outside.

So, a mysterious crime, but not at all impossible.  But maybe enough going on to where a confused reader like me could assume something was still going to lead to this being that sort of mystery.  I’ve seen it before: a story that lacks an airtight puzzle but astounds in the end with an especially clever solution.  And so I read on merrily, waiting for that sucker punch to come.

Now, to be fair to myself, author RT Campbell himself put me on some firm ground to expect some acrobatics in misdirection.  His series detective, Professor Stubs, is a flat out imitation of John Dickson Carr (the master of the locked room – but you knew that) sleuths Dr Fell and Henry Merrivale.  Stubs can barely maneuver his bulk of a body around unaided (Fell), he comes across as a bit addle-brained (Fell), although constantly complaining that he’s misunderstood (Merrivale).  He calls himself “The Old Man” (Merrivale), drives like a maniac (Fell, although perhaps Merrivale did this as well), smokes vile black tobacco (Merrivale), and some other brandings that I’m sure I’m forgetting.  Plus, there’s the way the character speaks, which reads exactly like Merrivale with a touch of Fell’s trademark warmth.

Now, you may think that I’m about to grouse on about RT Campbell ripping Carr off, but quite the opposite.  Campbell nailed everything I love about Carr’s detectives, and he captured it with such an expert hand that any given chapter felt like I was reading some long lost book by the maestro himself.  On the back of Professor Stubs alone, I immediately bought all of Campbell’s mysteries that I could get my hands on.

RT Campbell actually had quite the career, with mystery writing being a brief diversion to supplement the income.  He churned out a decent number of mysteries in just a few years, with several apparently remaining unpublished and possibly lost forever.  From what I saw in Bodies in a Bookshop, his writing is as enjoyable as most of his Golden Age peers.  It’s funny without trying too hard – this is one of those rare books that had me laugh out loud – and each chapter had a sense of progression instead of “oh god, we’ve still got to interview four more suspects’.  There are also some interesting bits about the second hand book market scattered throughout the book – all of the suspects are involved in the book trade in some sort of way – and if you patronize bookshops as much as I suspect you do, you’re bound to be intrigued.

Unfortunately though, Bodies in a Bookshop lacks that big moment I was waiting for in the end.  There’s no clever trick or Carr-esque layers of misdirection.  Someone gets fingered as the culprit, the motivation is explained, and that’s about it.  And I find that pretty disappointing even if you don’t walk into a mystery with the misconception that it’s an impossible crime.  I don’t just want the name of a killer and a few few page explanation of how/why.  I want to feel that as a reader I missed something; I viewed a scene in the wrong way, or the author pulled one over on me.  There’s none of that to be found here.

Still, this was a really enjoyable read and I won’t discount it on that disappointment alone.  Ten minutes before I finished the story I had been happy as a clam for the entire read, and so it seems crazy that I’d throw it aside for a lack of a strong solution.  At the same time, I feel kind of weird telling you “read this great mystery, although don’t expect anything clever out of it.”  So, take it for what you will.  I liked it.

6 thoughts on “Bodies in a Bookshop – RT Campbell (1946)”

  1. I read maybe half of this several years ago and gave up. I managed to forget about that, and bought another Campbell recently, read about a quarter of that and gave up. Then I found my copy of this with a bookmark still halfway through.

    I understand him to have written a couple of genuine impossible crimes — Take Thee a Sharp Knife (1946) and The Death Cap (1946) — neither of which are in Adey or Skupin. But on my experience to date, I shall let others read them first!

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    1. I’m surprised that you gave up on this midway through as it’s very readable and strikes me as something that you’d like. Of course, I’m not going to try to convince you to finish it just so that you can experience the meh ending.

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  2. Ten minutes before I finished the story I had been happy as a clam for the entire read, and so it seems crazy that I’d throw it aside for a lack of a strong solution.

    You describe my own experience with Campbell and Professor John Stubbs. Campbell was a good, often funny writer/satirist who’s can be a joy to read if you’re fan of John Dickson Carr and Leo Bruce, but as a plotter he could be as lazy as a poet. I would have called him a lousy plotter had it not been for Death for Madame. Unholy Dying lacked credible suspects, Swing Low, Swing Death is a satire of the modern art scene pretending to be a (threadbare) detective story and can’t remember a single thing about Bodies in a Bookshop.

    So don’t expect too much from Take Thee a Sharp Knife or The Death Cap. I’m sure they’re probably hilarious send ups of the impossible crime story, but I would be surprised if either turned out to be an unsung, long overlooked classic of the form.

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    1. It sounds like I started with the least memorable, although I somehow had it in my mind that it was Campbell’s more widely recognized book. I have Unholy Dying, but it seems like Death for Madame is the one to really seek out. Thanks for all of the tips!

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