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.

17935

(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).’

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