Work for the Hangman

“What I read in your hand is tragedy—a horrible tragedy that doesn’t come to one in a million people.”

Bookseller Theodore Terhune buys the substantial library of recently deceased James Strudgewick, a wealthy Yorkshireman who drowned at a local beauty spot. Deemed anaccidental death by the coroner, the locals remain suspicious, and dislike Strudgewick’s nephew and heir. But Ronald Strudgewick has a cast-iron alibi – he was 30 miles away visiting with friend Robert Shilling in Thirsk at the time of his uncle’s death, and the police have already picked over his movements.  But Terhune and his friend Julia have met Shilling before, and know there is a mysterious accidental death in his past too…

Work for the Hangman is a classic blend of a traditional detective novel and inverted ‘how-to-catch-em” mystery. It showcases Bruce Graeme’s use of local geography and small details to build an intriguing puzzle.

BRUCE GRAEME (1900-1982) was a pseudonym of Graham Montague Jeffries, an author of more than 100 crime novels and a founding member of the Crime Writer’s Association. He

created six series sleuths, including bookseller and accidental detective Theodore Terhune, whose seven adventures—Seven Clues in Search of a Crime (1941); House with Crooked Walls (1942); A Case for Solomon (1943); Work for the Hangman (1944); Ten Trails to Tyburn (1944); A Case of Books (1946) and And a Bottle of Rum (1949)— are republished by Moonstone Press.

£8.99

By Bruce Graeme  (pseudonym of Graham Montague Jeffries)

Introduction by J F Norris, vintage crime historian

First published in 1944 by Hutchinson & Co Ltd

Paperback
255pp
ISBN 9781899000326

Available November 2021


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From the Introduction:  Bruce Graeme, the Mixologist Mystery Writer  by J F Norris

Readers who first met Theodore I. Terhune in Seven Clues in Search of a Crime will be thrilled to learn that Work for the Hangman is a legitimate detective novel.  All action is confined to Bray-in-the-Marsh and its environs with none of the first book’s globetrotting adventures. This is no eerie thriller as in House with Crooked Walls, with the spirit of an evil monk haunting the story and skeletons waiting to be uncovered.

No courtroom transcripts to pore over as in A Case for Solomon. We get some inventive detective work in this fourth of the seven Terhune books. Julia MacMunn really shines this time. Her nascent detectivetalent, first explored in House with Crooked Walls, was until now limited mostly to library research. Much to Terhune’s surprise Julia does lots of offstage legwork and delivers some of the choicest moments and damning evidence against the prime suspect.

Personally, I was happy to see that Graeme was giving more stage time, as it were, to Julia over the other woman in Terhune’s life, Helena Armstrong. Helena, the secretary to Lady Kylstone, another recurring character in this series, seems only to be used as a foil, and a rather weak one, for Terhune’s affections. Julia—tart-tongued, brash, unscrupulous and often extremely selfish—is complicated, conflicted and much more interesting than Helena. Yet beneath her haughty facade there lies hidden a woman of substance, of insight and of feeling. Her mercurial temperament and fluid moods are well suited to those of a competent actress, and she makes use of that burgeoning talent at one crucial point in the novel.

Convinced that Robert Shilling is a murderer, she wants to trap him into revealing he is not the decent man he presents himself to be. During a tour of his lavishly furnished home Julia subtly picks at the character of Veronica, Shilling’s second, much younger wife. After hearing him compare the differences in their tastes in home decoration, Julia warns Shilling that men should always be careful of whom they marry as men are more proper, less fickle and less indulgent than women. She says a woman will pull a man “down to her level instead of trying to raise herself to his”. And that is the trap she needs toreveal Shilling for who he really is:

If he has an ounce of decency in him, she reflected, he will bundle me out of this house neck and crop for insulting his wife like that.

He is frowning. Is he going to tell me that I am the most insulting guest he has ever had the misfortune to have in the house?

If he does I shall respect him a little. I may even begin to wonder whether he is the cold-blooded murderer all of us believe him to be.

Work for the Hangman may be a more traditional detective novel than the previous Terhune books, but it is not without some deliciously creepy moments. Graeme’s love for psychic ability and superstition come into play at a charity fete where Terhune and Veronica Shilling visit a palmist’s tent. The palm reader is a rather clever intuitive detective herself and stuns the easily impressed Veronica with pronouncements about her marriage, her husband and Terhune’s identity.

Then both of them are astonished when the fortune teller gets the name of Veronica’s first love correct but will divulge nothing else, for she sees darkness in Veronica’s palm. Nevertheless, this scene ends with a stunning revelation that paves the way for the twisty denouement.

Astute readers in tune with genre history will soon begin to notice that this mystery novel is a melding of two types of story, two subgenres within the overarching category of detective fiction. Terhune is investigating suspicious accidental deaths that might be murders. All is presented as an old-fashioned whodunit for about the first third of the book. Then the narrative veers away from his viewpoint and we follow another character. Graeme has subtly transformed his story into an “inverted” detective novel. When evidence starts to pile up the reader may be savvy enough to recognize that the story appears to be morphing into one of the earliest “murder by proxy” crime fiction novels.