I’ve blogged a little before about Dan Billany, the young crime writer, who was a POW and then died in Italy during the Second World War. This is a review of his book, The Opera House Murders which was published in 1940 by Faber and Faber, then under the helm of T.S. Eliot. It’s a bit of a mash-up – there’s a country house, Granby House, as the main setting, the protagonist, Robbie Duncan, is a little bit like Sherlock Holmes, and a little like A.J.Raffles, the gentleman thief. There is also a certain hard-boiled element, knuckle dusters etc which probably explains why it went down well in 1940s America where it was published under the title It Takes a Thief.
The book starts with a young boy, Jack, the son of the opera singer Mary Kirby up a tree in the grounds of Granby House, being witness to a man being run over repeatedly by a car. His tutor is Robbie Duncan, a friend of Mary’s, an ex-private eye and also an ex-con. An interesting combination. So what kind of man is he? Well, he tells us himself near the beginning that …
‘I had all the qualities and the enthusiasm which make an expert criminologist…’
‘In eight years I saved three lives, caught two murderers and recovered over fifty thousand pounds worth of property.’
‘At the height of my career my contacts at the Yard admitted that there was only one real detective in the country.’
So, he’s not a man who is short on confidence! There is also a distinctly Robin Hood quality to him and a ‘recognition of the problems of the distribution of wealth’.
‘I looked at one or two of my wealthy clients with a meditative eye … Sir Joseph Farmer was very rich; Christ said it was easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I planned to put Sir Joseph right with Heaven to the extent of ten thousand pounds …’
The plot involves a criminal gang’s search for £100, 000, which is the booty from a bank robbery, and a watch which contains a scratched map indicating its whereabouts. Jack, as a witness, is at risk, so as well as protecting him Robbie is trying to tackle the problem of where the money has been stashed. In the process he slithers into a drainage pipe, has his jaw broken with a knuckle duster, is hit on the head with a hammer (“biffed on the biscuit”) has the top joint of his little finger shot off and steps in a rat trap. He also shows his expert knowledge of Opera by uncovering a man posing as an agent for the Metropolitan Opera in New York, because the man claims to have heard Caruso sing Othello. He never did apparently!
The tone of the book is brisk and humourous as indicated by some of the chapter headings:The Characteristic Odour of a Rodent, I Admit Myself Kippered and Things that Go Bump in the Night. This is one of my favourite lines:
‘When I was a young man I was sent down from college before taking a degree for grievously wounding a professor.’
And Robbie does not hold back from informing us what he thinks of most opera houses.
‘His architects had made a striking departure from the tradition that an opera house should torture its audience to keep them awake.’
The deaths come thick and fast and you will not be surprised to know that Robbie triumphs by finding and keeping for himself the £100,000 and also getting the ‘girl’, Mary, who agrees to marry him. The romantic element is perhaps the least plausible part of the book. It would have been interesting however to know what the next Robbie Duncan crime caper would have brought us. Would Robbie and Mary have turned into a sort of Tommy and Tuppence? Would there have been baby Duncans? What would Robbie have got up to during the war? Dropped into France or a double agent? With all his skills you’d think that he would definitely have been useful to the secret services. Unfortunately we’re never going to know. Dan Billany died somewhere in Italy after escaping from the POW camp at Fontanellato after the Italian armistice was declared. The circumstances of his death are unknown.