They Can’t Hang Me – James Ronald (1938)

Once a London newspaper titan, Lucius Marplay has spent the last two decades locked in a mental asylum.  Doctors fear that he has homicidal tendencies, and for good reason.  Lucius himself openly admits that he’s spent years plotting the murder of four ex-partners that he claims stole his newspaper The Echo and had him committed.  If he manages to carry out his scheme and gets caught, he has an ace up his sleeve – as a diagnosed lunatic, he can’t be sentenced to death.

It won’t surprise the reader that Lucius escapes the asylum and makes a beeline for London.  We soon learn that the four partners who have taken over the newspaper business are indeed scum of the earth, and find ourselves in a rare Golden Age story where we’re actively cheering on the killer.  It’s a quirky plot in that sense – not a conventional mystery (as we know the killer), nor an inverted mystery (since the police are actively trying to thwart the crimes).  And yet it does unfold somewhat like a mystery, as the machinations of the crime spree take place off screen.  We know who the killer is, who the victims will be, and what the motive is, but we’re unaware of how everything is being carried out.  The “how” is the truly interesting part, and where They Can’t Hang Me takes a swerve into impossible crime territory.

The very newspaper that our four victims run serves as their death notice, with inexplicably planted obituary entries announcing the future time and place of each murder.  And without fail, despite heavy police protection, the obituaries come true.  Lucius Marplay stalks the halls of The Echo as an invisible assassin, committing one crime after another and then disappearing in impossible fashion.  The premier crime is a man being shot dead in a sealed room with dozens of police guarding the only entrance.

It’s a plot born in heaven as far as I’m concerned. The identity of the next victim plus where and when they’ll meet their fate is always known, which gives everyone involved time to prepare their defenses.  It’s not just the typical question of how the successful crimes have been pulled off, but the mystery of how the next one can possibly be managed given all of the protective steps that are being taken.

James Ronald is a new author to me, in part because his work is out of print and difficult to lay your hands on.  An English author, his work somehow takes on the tone of Americans like Cornell Woolrich, and I kept having to keep my eye out for confirmation that events were unfolding in London rather than on the streets of New York.  There’s a grittiness there, although Ronald knows how to lighten things up.  There’s a humorous subplot about how a rival newspaper somehow keeps managing to scoop the Echo on the crimes unfolding in their own building.

Come the end we get a solid explanation to how all of the murders were pulled off.  There’s nothing exactly novel in terms of solution to the impossible crimes, but the way that Ronald weaves a number of them together into a single story stands out.  I wouldn’t go so far as to claim They Can’t Hang Me is a classic, but it feels like a solid one of a kind, much in the vein of Virgil Markham’s The Devil Drives.

I guess I’ll have to keep my eyes open for a few years before I stumble upon another James Ronald novel for a reasonable price.  Or perhaps we’ll get lucky and some publisher will decide to start reissuing his work.

My edition

I managed to get my hands on a cheap copy of the Popular Library edition of They Can’t Hang Me around the start of the pandemic.  It’s easily the best cover available, and I’d struggled to find an affordable copy for quite some time.  Well, the cheap price was likely due to the book’s binding barely holding in there, and upon unwrapping my new acquisition the cover promptly fell off.  I could tell I’d be losing pages as I read (a seriously frustrating experience if you haven’t gone through it), and so the book sat unread for years.

Recently I’ve been trying my hand at repairing paperbacks, and I was curious if I could go so far as to fix up this moldering corpse of a book.  I disassembled the most frail pieces and gave the binding and pages a bit of a rub down – think of it as sanding off the loose bits to allow the next step of the repair to hold.  Using a cheap model paintbrush, I added a thin layer of paper glue right where the pages would have originally been bound together, and then reassembled the book.  The last step was glueing the cover back on; a similar process to glueing the pages.  In all it probably took ten minutes.

Then came a bit of patience: I placed a heavy pile of books on top of my repaired copy.  This acts like a vice to press everything in place while the glue dries.  I waited two days, but I’m sure I would have been fine with just one.  Testing the book out, everything seemed to be solidly back together.

And you know what?  It was really solid.  I read They Can’t Hang Me as I would have read any other book in my collection.  It held together like a pristine copy and I couldn’t tell the difference.  In fact, I’m curious now as to whether other books in my collection have been repaired prior to me buying them.

If you have any books in bad shape, just watch a five minute video on paperback book repair.  It’s really easy, takes little time, and the results are worth it.

8 thoughts on “They Can’t Hang Me – James Ronald (1938)”

  1. Glad you liked this. I have TCHM, Murder in the Family and Six Were to Die aka The Dark Angel by James Ronald. They are not classics but I enjoyed all three, particularly MitF given the despicable victim and an unusual and emotional motive for her demise.

    I learned from John over at Pretty Sinister that Ronald had another pseudonym, Michael Crombie, with several titles all but impossible to find let alone at a reasonable price, including the tantalizingly named The Sealed Room Murder. I thought I remember him saying that the family were unwilling to reprint his books given an unsavoury past.

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    1. I thought I remember him saying that the family were unwilling to reprint his books given an unsavoury past.

      That’s unfortunately true. John responded to my post, “Curiosity is Killing the Cat: Detective Novels That Need to Be Reprinted,” with the following comment: “Debra Riley of Moonstone Press tried valiantly to get the rights to five of his books, including They Can’t Hang Me. After dealing with one member of his family (a great niece) and seeming to get to the the finish line others got wind of the plan then emailed Debra and put a stop to it all. They told her that they do not have fond memories of the man and they would prefer if he were not back in print. It’s very disheartening that his checkered personal life and a few ‘scandalous’ escapades (one of which involved tax evasion) are enough to embarrass his lineage so much that they won’t allow his books back in print. Makes me burn. But what can you do?

      Since he died somewhere around 1995, his work will not fall into the public domain for another 40+ years. So we can only hope the family will change their mind before the 2060s roll around or trying to luck upon a couple of cheap copies. Anyway, thanks for the enticing review.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Perhaps you’re aware already, but there is a paperback reprint of Murder in the Family by Belmont in 1964, but that one is abridged. I found years ago a used hardcover in fair condition at an affordable price that is the complete version so don’t know how much was cut in the later softcover reprint.

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        1. I was aware of the paperback, but I was not aware that it was abridged. Many thanks for letting me know. There wasn’t any fat to trim in They Wouldn’t Hang Me, so I’d like to assume Ronald is best read in full.

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  2. I’m glad you enjoyed this; I’m a huge fan of Ronald, and would republish him in a heartbeat were the opportunity available. A shame to learn that there’s active opposition, because the books are a bunch of fun and deserve a wide readership.

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