Victor L. Whitechurch (1868 – 1933)

Victor Lorenzo Whitechurch (1868-1933) was educated at Chichester Theological College and Durham University. He married Florence Partridge, took holy orders. After various positions as curate he became vicar of St. Michael’s, Blewbury in 1904. In 1913 he became Chaplain to the Bishop of Oxford, and an honorary canon of Christ Church. In 1918 he became Rural Dean of Aylesbury. He was the son of Matilda Cornwall. He became the author of 24 books, and in 1911 he published Concerning Himself, an autobiography.

He began his writing career with religious works, as befitted his profession, and edited The Chronicle of St George in 1891 before producing his own work The Course of Justice in 1903. He wrote his first quasi-detective novel, also considered as a clerical romance, in 1904 when The Canon in Residence was published and was later adapted for stage and radio. He also contributed detective stories to the Strand Magazine, the Railway Magazine and Pearson’s and Harmsworth’s Magazines. Some of his railway stories were published as Thrilling Stories of the Railway aka Stories of the Railway in 1912, 15 stories in all, nine of which feature his specialist in railway detection, Thorpe Hazell, a strict vegetarian. (The British Museum catalogue, it should be noted here, drops the adjective, presumably as being an advertising gimmick rather than part of the title proper; and the present volume follows this usage except when forced to the ‘thrilling’ for facsimile purposes.)

After producing a variety of romantic novels, he returned to thrillers with The Templeton Case, 1924, and another collection of short stories on a railway and spy theme, The Adventures of Captain Ivan Koravitch in 1925.

Two quite different books appeared from his pen in 1927, The Truth in Christ Jesus and The Crime at Diana’s Pool before he devoted his final years almost solely to detective fiction, writing four further such novels between 1927 and 1932, Shot on the Downs (1927), Mixed Relations aka The Robbery at Rudwick House (1929), Murder at the Pageant (1930) and the last of them Murder at the College aka Murder at Exbridge (1932) written after he had suffered a long and debilitating illness.

Although his thriller output was relatively low, 12 of his 27 books being of the genre, Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in their splendid Catalogue of Crime wrote of him, “He was the greatest improviser in the genre – all but one of his stories has distinct merit.” Ellery Queen and Dorothy L Sayers meanwhile admired his books for their “immaculate plotting and factual accuracy” believing him to be “one of the first writers to submit his manuscripts to Scotland Yard for vetting as to police procedure.” He died in 1933. The BBC produced a series of five adaptations of short stories from Thrilling Stories of the Railway which were read by Benedict Cumberbatch.  (Mainly taken from Gerry Wolstenholme, May 2010, at Goodreads and other sources)

Further reading:

51kIcHGScoL._SY346_This carefully crafted ebook: The Railway Mysteries – Complete Collection: 28 Titles in One Volume (Including The Thorpe Hazell Detective Tales & Other Thrilling Stories On and Off the Rails) is formatted for your eReader with a functional and detailed table of contents. (Published 7 April 2016 by e-artnow. Format: Kindle Edition. File Size: 2065 KB. Print Length: 280 pages. ASIN: B01E44UVGU. ISBN: 978-80-268-5319-0). Content: Thrilling Stories of the Railway (15 short stories) and Other Railway Stories (13 short stories).

descarga (2)Thrilling Stories of the Railway (collected 1912) contains nine stories about Railway Detective Thorpe Hazell, and 6 other non series tales. Hazell is a wealthy amateur, vegetarian, and health nut, who studies railways as a hobby. Hazell’s vegetarian diet was intended by his author to be both humorous and grotesque, and I took it so when I first read these tales years ago; but today many people are moving toward a vegetarian diet for health reasons, and what Hazell eats in the stories seems more and more normal all the time.

1st UK edition (Pearson, 1912) Courtesy of Pretty Sinister Books (JF Norris)

Whitechurch’s early fiction is hard to classify. It mixes railroad technology with spy, mystery and adventure elements, and seems designed to please railroad enthusiasts as much as mystery fans. It also oscillates between impossible crime and technology based fiction, with stops along the way for just plain mystery writing. The tone is far removed from Meade and Eustace, or Arthur B. Reeve, and one hesitates to include it in the “scientific detection” tradition. Whitechurch’s tone is light. There is a sense of “artificiality” about his plot elements, such as the mystery, crime, or espionage stories. They seem to be constructed as a support element for his ingenious railroading ideas. Despite this, they are often very good pieces of storytelling in their own right.

Several of the best Hazell tales deal with thefts from the railways. These include “Sir Gilbert Murrell’s Picture”, “The Affair of the German Dispatch Box”, and “The Stolen Necklace”. These stories are often impossible crime tales, or border on them. There is also a good natured adventure story among the Hazell tales, “How the Bishop Kept His Appointment”. A non-mystery, it is linked to the often humorous “clerical” fiction that Whitechurch also wrote. (Source: Golden Age of Detection Wiki, by Mike Grost. Read the complete article here)

Thrilling Stories of the Railway has been reviewed, among others, at Pretty Sinister Books, Vintage Pop Fiction and My Reader’s Block.


(Source: Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC. T. Fisher Unwin, Ltd. (UK), 1927)

“both men uttered a fresh exclamation of horror. The face of the man was not that of the black-bearded bandsman whose jacket he was wearing. The man they had found stabbed in the back and lying in Diana’s pool was their host – Felix Nayland!”

The Reverend Harry Westerman was “an energetic, capable parish priest, a good organiser, and a plain, sensible preacher” and “a particularly shrewd and capable man. It was no idle boast of his that he had made a habit of observation – many of his parishioners little guessed how closely and clearly he had summed them up by observing those ordinary idiosyncrasies which escape the notice of most people. He was also a man who could be deeply interested in many things quite apart from his professional calling, and chiefly in problems which concerned humanity.” Attending the garden party of a newcomer to the parish of Coppleswick he makes a discovery that leads to a long and complicated investigation with sinister connections to past events.  

Originally published in 1926 (Source: Ostara Publishing)

The Crime at Diana’s Pool has been reviewed, among others, at ‘Do You Write Under Your Own Name?’ and Cross-Examining Crime.

Martin Edwards has included The Crime at Diana’s Pool in his book The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books. Even though he considers that ‘his mostly highly regarded work in the crime genre was the collection Thrilling Stories of the Railway (1912).’

Bernard Capes (1854 – 1918)

NPG Ax39165; Bernard CapesBernard Edward Joseph Capes (30 August 1854 – 2 November 1918) was a prolific Victorian author who published more than 40 books, best remembered for his accomplished ghost stories. Capes was born in London, one of eleven children: his elder sister, Harriet Capes, was a noted translator and author of more than a dozen children’s books. His grandfather, John Capes, had converted to Roman Catholicism, so Capes was brought up a Catholic, and educated at the Catholic college Beaumont College. However, he rapidly ‘gave this up’.

Capes early writing career was as a journalist, later becoming editor of a paper called The Theatre, which was well known in late nineteenth century London. Other magazines for which Capes wrote included Blackwood’s, Butterfly, Cassell’s, Cornhill Magazine, Hutton’s Magazine, Illustrated London News, Lippincott’s, Macmillan’s Magazine, Literature, New Witness, Pall Mall Magazine, Pearson’s Magazine, The Idler, The New Weekly, and The Queen.

Capes wrote numerous ghost stories, which were later rediscovered by anthologist Hugh Lamb in the 1970s. Capes also wrote historical novels. He finally committed to writing novels full-time, taking around four months for each novel. On several occasions he had two or three novels published in the same year – and even four in 1910. The Skeleton Key was the first detective novel commissioned and published by Collins (1919); its success (8 editions in 10 years) paved the way for a century of crime publishing. it was Bernard Capes’ only book in the genre, sadly he died on 2 November 1918 in the influenza epidemic before his book was published. A plaque commemorating his life is in Winchester Cathedral.

The Skeleton Key has been re-issued as The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, HarperCollins, London, September 2015.

Introducing The Skeleton Key, G. K. Chesterton highlighted the quality of Capes’ writing: ‘From the first his prose has a strong element of poetry.’ Julian Symons, in his seminal study of the genre, Bloody Murder, described the book as ‘a neglected tour de force’.


Subtle touches of plotting as well as characterisation lift The Skeleton Key out of the ordinary. The story illustrates Chesterton’s claim that: ‘A detective story might well be in a special sense a spiritual tragedy; since it is a story in which even the moral sympathies may be in doubt. A police romance is almost the only romance in which the hero may turn out to be the villain, or the villain to be the hero.’ (Martin Edwards’ The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books).

824b48e8-e32d-438a-868a-ba5accf51665The fourth in a new series of classic detective stories from the vaults of HarperCollins involves a tragic accident during a shooting party. As the story switches between Paris and Hampshire, the possibility of it not being an accident seems to grow more likely.

“The Detective Story Club”, launched by Collins in 1929, was a clearing house for the best and most ingenious crime stories of the age, chosen by a select committee of experts. Now, almost 90 years later, these books are the classics of the Golden Age, republished at last with the same popular cover designs that appealed to their original readers.

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key, first published in 1919, has the distinction of being the first detective novel commissioned and published by Collins, though it was Bernard Capes’ only book in the genre, as he died shortly before it was published. This is how the Detective Club announced their edition ten years later:

“Mr Arnold Bennett, in a recent article, criticised the ad hoc characterisation and human interest in the detective novels of to-day. “The Mystery of the Skeleton Key” contains, in addition to a clever crime problem and plenty of thrills, a sensible love story, humour, excellent characterisation and strong human interest. The scenes are laid in Paris and Hampshire. The story deals with a crime committed in the grounds of a country house and the subsequent efforts of a clever young detective the track down the perpetrator. The Selection Committee of “The Detective Story Club” have no hesitation in recommending this splendid thriller as one which will satisfy the most exacting reader of detective fiction.”

This new edition comes with a brand new introduction by Capes expert and anthologist, Hugh Lamb. (Source: HarperCollinsPublishers)

The Mystery of the Skeleton Key has been reviewed, among others, at Mystery File, CrimeCross-Examining, the crime segments, and Classic Mysteries.

I’m personally not in a hurry to read it.

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