They Rang Up The Police – Joanna Cannan (1939)

I can’t quite recall why I bought this book.  I want to say that I saw it on some list of worthy Golden Age mysteries, but by the time my copy arrived in the post, I couldn’t remember what had spurred the purchase.  While I was at it, I had apparently snagged another Joanna Cannan novel (The Taste of Murder) on account of it being a cheap Dell map back edition.  So here I was, with two Joanna Cannan books and no real idea of who she was or what I was in for.

Thankfully I was in the mood for a decidedly British mystery, and They Rang Up the Police offers a nice cottage-laced version of that.  An elderly mother and her three spinster daughters form an unusually close-knit family in small town England.  They simply do everything together, and so when the eldest daughter disappears after a night spent sleeping outside, the others are thrown into a panic.  The thought of someone leaving the house in the morning without announcing their departure is simply unfathomable.  Eventually, “they rang up the police”, and after much badgering, the mother pulls enough strings to get a detective sent down from Scotland Yard.

Said detective comes in the form of Inspector Guy Northeast.  An everyman sleuth, we watch Northeast stumble and claw his way through the investigation, while the local police force shake their heads in disappointment.  Northeast chugs along with the tenacity of Freeman Wills Crofts’ Inspector French, but with maybe just a quarter of the good fortune.

It takes until about the midway point before we finally have hard evidence that a murder has in fact occurred, which gives the story a ripple of excitement.  Northeast continues to struggle to make progress in the case, and while I wouldn’t say that the story drags, the investigation rarely feels like it has any traction.  I identified the culprit and the core misdirection early on, but even as the chapters dwindled, it didn’t seem like Northeast would ever have a prayer of stumbling upon a piece of evidence to point him in the right direction.

They Rang Up the Police is your standard investigation, involving a series of interviews with a defined set of suspects and their relations.  The core mystery isn’t exactly gripping – a woman is missing for half the book, and then she winds up dead – and there isn’t exactly an intriguing hook.  What keeps the story afloat is that author Joanna Cannan writes some pretty damn fine passages.  It’s not so much that the chapters have meat on them, but there were sentences or paragraphs aplenty that I wanted to jot down for posterity.  I doubt that I’ll ever reread this book, but that’s a shame, as there are some wonderful moments of expression tucked throughout the pages.

With a few chapters to go, it had been an enjoyable enough British mystery, but I was fairly confident I wouldn’t be returning for more Joanna Cannan.  And yeah, the revelation at the end was just what I had expected, and the only amazing part was that the police actually managed to solve it (with a clue that must have creaked with age by the time this was written, although Cannan/Northeast trot it out like the latest innovation).  But as all of the loose ends get tied up, we get some insight into the motive behind the crime, and… well… it was really damn good.  Like, this isn’t some amazingly clever motive that you get from the likes of Murder at Hazelmoor, but man, there’s a bit of a haunting gut punch in this one.  I ate up the final chapter and was left with that emotional toll that you expect at the end of a Christianna Brand novel.  Ok, not quite that impactful, but it was there.

And you know, the ending left me wanting more. I actually went out and bought Death at the Dog – the follow up to They Rang Up the Police and the second of only two Guy Northeast novels.  So yeah, I guess this one won me over after all.  Anyone else read this or anything else by Cannan?

4 thoughts on “They Rang Up The Police – Joanna Cannan (1939)”

  1. The only Joanna Cannan I have read is, Murder Included, based on earlier reviews from Kate and Dead Yesterday. It is a good if not great read with a biting look at class differences in England of the 1950s. I enjoyed this and recognize your compliment about Cannan’s characters and writing style but not enough to seek out more Cannan titles.

    Liked by 1 person

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