“Somehow, the idea of the devil in a motor boat sounds too utterly fantastic,” remarked the Inspector.

The Secret of High Eldersham, by Miles Burton

After finishing my #TBR10 (which I’ll post separately about) I found myself intensely busy at work and in need of lighter reading. Guy Savage had recently reviewed Miles Burton’s The Secret of High Eldersham which sounded a fun change from the sort of book I’d normally read. Besides, just look at that cover:


I adore the British Library Crime Classics covers. It’s a shame I don’t generally enjoy vintage cosy crime, because they all look quite wonderful.

This one’s a bit of an oddity. Miles Burton was a hugely successful writer in his day and his series character Desmond Merrion was a popular hero. Merrion takes a while to arrive though, with the book opening with the retirement of a village pub landlord due to failing trade and his replacement by a retired police officer who takes on the lease. A short few years later and the new landlord is found dead in his own pub, stabbed to death.

The local police aren’t used to investigating murders and Scotland Yard is called in, in the form of Detective Inspector Young. After making some initial headway he finds his investigation stalled. Young was warned by the local bobby that “strangers don’t never prosper in High Eldersham” and that odd things happen to outsiders. Increasingly he feels “himself surrounded by impalpable forces beyond his power to combat.” Spooky stuff, but perhaps it’s just isolation and imagination getting to him.

Detective Inspector Young does what any sensible professional police officer would surely do in such a situation. He calls on an amateur to help him out.

Desmond Merrion is an independently wealthy war veteran with a sharp mind and a sizable independent income. Young captures his attention with the mysterious claim that “High Eldersham holds one of the most remarkable secrets of recent years.” Intrigued, Merrion makes his way to High Eldersham incognito so that he can make unofficial inquiries alongside Young’s official ones.

It’s no great spoiler to say there’s a folk horror element to the Secret of High Eldersham. Young quite quickly becomes convinced that witchcraft is being practised in the town. He finds a makeshift wax doll with a needle stuck into it in a suspect’s home, and on a return visit Merrion gets a closer look and discovers that the doll was marked with the dead man’s name. Neither Young nor Merrion believe in magic, but the villagers might and someone could be using that local superstition as a cover for wider crimes.

Merrion, aided by his indefatigable batman Newport, poses as a holidaying amateur sailor and by that means gets closer to some of the local gentry. Among them is an odd sort named Laurence Hollesley that Merrion knew from the war. Hollesley’s in love with the local magistrate’s beautiful daughter Mavis and soon Merrion is too, but evidence points to her father as being involved in the various nefarious goings-on. Can Merrion find out what’s really going on? And if Mavis’s father is involved, can Merrion protect her from that terrible truth?

High Eldersham is something of a blend between detective story, thriller and folk horror tale. There are multiple story strands, all of which of course tie up together in the end (somewhat coincidentally so to my mind given at one point Young goes off to investigate a totally separate case in London which then turns out to be connected to the events in High Eldersham). There’s murder, London drug dealers, Hollesely and his sinister butler getting up to curious deeds off the coast, a romance sub-plot, a mysterious coven practicing dark rituals. It all gets a bit much to keep track of and while I never got confused I did find myself thinking there was perhaps a little too much packed in here.

Burton (a pen name) has a lovely eye for description. Much of the action takes place off the coast, between a battered old boat Merrion hires, Mavis’s prized speedboat and Hollesley’s yacht and Burton clearly relishes descriptions of the sea and sky.

Saturday turned out to be a bright, cold day, with a fresh breeze from the north-westward. Towards the evening, however, the wind backed to the south-west and the weather grew considerably milder. At the same time, fleecy masses of cloud began to float slowly across the hitherto clear sky.

Burton’s persuasive familiarity with the sea works well in a particularly notable scene where Merrion finds himself stranded on a fog-shrouded sandbank with water rising up on all sides and no idea which way to swim to find the shore. The witchy scenes are also suitably creepy:

… he came to a stretch of smooth and level turf, set in the centre of the coppice. He explored this with considerable care. It seemed to be roughly circular, with a diameter of rather more than a hundred feet. In the centre was a burnt patch, upon which lay a few ashes and charred pieces of wood. Having looked very carefully at this, Merrion crossed the open space to its boundary, which was formed by the trees and a mass of rough brushwood growing among them. Making his way slowly round he came upon two tall trees growing some five yards apart, their interlaced branches forming a canopy above his head. And half-way between the two trunks stood a huge stone, which had at one time been roughly hewn. The top of the stone was hollowed like a saucer, and into this depression Merrion cast the rays of his torch. Beneath a layer of fallen leaves and pieces of bark the surface of the stone showed smooth and worn. But upon it were spots of candle grease, and between them dark stains as of dried blood.

In the end though while I enjoyed High Eldersham it is fair to say that it would be a better novel with a little less going on. It all gets a bit unlikely. Young and Merrion quickly work out that someone has resurrected a centuries old declining witch cult and then pretended to have magical powers so as to control the locals, but I couldn’t help thinking that there might have been simpler ways for the villains to carry out their nefarious plots that might have involved less effort. The characterisation is pretty straightforward which meant that I worked out who was responsible pretty quickly, and while the why was more elusive it wasn’t really quite interesting enough to justify the extraordinary means employed.

If you’re a fan of folk horror this is worth reading. If, however, you’re more a fan of vintage crime I suspect you can give it a miss.

Other reviews

Guy brought this to my attention which his review here. Other reviews worth noting are at the Past Offences blog here and the Cross Examining Crime blog here. Both Past and Cross picks up on the potential stylistic connection to The Riddle of the Sands, another yacht-based thriller which I think benefits from a considerably tighter focus than High Eldersham.


Filed under British crime fiction, Burton, Miles, Crime

15 responses to ““Somehow, the idea of the devil in a motor boat sounds too utterly fantastic,” remarked the Inspector.

  1. Sounds fun, if a little busy. The BL books *look* absolutely gorgeous and the ones I’ve read have been enjoyable, though mostly one-read books (which may be why many of them fell by the wayside). However, I’m looking forward very much to the reappearance of Anthony Berkeley – I’ve not found his books to be particularly cosy, but they are very good!

  2. I think fun if a little busy is fair. They do look gorgeous don’t they? I think most of them are good but ultimately forgettable, which to be fair is probably what their authors were mostly aiming for. Entertainment rather than lasting literature, but no less worth remembering and reissuing for that.

    Anthony Berkeley?

  3. I can’t really say I’m a fan of folk horror as I’m pretty sure I haven’t read any.
    It does sound fun. And, like you, I enjoy those covers although I rarely read cozy crime. When I do I often find I enjoy it more than I thought I would. The major flaw of this novel seems that it’s too busy. Maybe it was one of his first?

  4. I’m pretty sure The Loney is generally seen as folk horror, so you’ve read one. It’s fun, but too busy. I’ve no idea where it comes in his body of work but I think Guy said his Death in the Tunnel which stars the same series character is stronger in terms of a pure detective novel (and generally in fact, more focused).

    I do plan to read Death of an Airman at some point in this series, which from Guy’s review I thought sounded fun.

  5. My favourite of all the British Crime library classics is Antidote to Venom. It’s quite different. And I agree that this one was too ‘busy.’

  6. You did make a very good case for that one. I’m slightly tempted to read his Hogs Back (which you also reviewed of course) first and then build up to the stronger Antidote.

  7. This and Death in the Tunnel aren’t on your Golden Age page Guy, is that intentional?

  8. No, I must have missed putting them on, thanks.

    Hogs back is a lot darker than I expected, and it didn’t go in the direction I thought it would. Antidote to venom is very unusual, I think, in the murder aspect.

  9. Sounds like a great read. I am yet to buy one of these lovely editions.

  10. I suppose Aickman would be considered Folk Horror? Or some of his stories anyway.

    I enjoy Guy’s reviews of these books, and my local has a huge (and very attractive) display of the series. But cosy just ain’t my thing, so I remain untempted.

  11. I love the BL Crime Classics concept and cover designs; they always look so tempting when they’re on display in bookshops.

    It does sound as though there’s a more than one book here! That said, I do enjoy these Golden Age mysteries where a talented amateur inserts himself into the proceedings by coming to the aid of the detective in charge. Funnily enough, I passed on a copy of this one in the local charity shop the other day – probably the right decision given that I’m trying to rein in my spend at the moment. I have a copy of Burton’s Death in the Tunnel which I’m looking forward to immensely. One for a rainy Sunday afternoon, I think.

  12. I recently read The Hog’s Back mystery from the British Library Crime Classics when I was enduring a busy tiring period at work, it really hit the spot. This sounds entertaining too.

  13. I’ll stay away from this one, the folh horror line is definitely not for me. (I’m already put off by the rapper thing in Penelope Fitzgerald’s Bookshop)

  14. Ian, I had to google Aickman. He sounds more classic ghost stories, but I’m honestly not sure.

    It tends to be more a film/tv genre. The classic three folk horror movies are The Wicker Man, Blood on Satan’s Claw (great until the end which it doesn’t quite manage to land) and Witchfinder General. Recent stuff such as Wake Wood clearly counts too. It’s that mix of the countryside, the alien or supernatural, and traditional beliefs. Nigel Kneale’s in the territory, as well as old tv plays such as Robin Redbreast (very good) and I believe Redshift (though I’ve not seen that), plus classic children’s tv such as Children of the Stones (holds up very well).

    I love Guy’s reviews of these books, generally much more (like you) than I suspect I’d like the books themselves.

    Jacqui, they look wonderful. I have this on kindle which seems rather a waste. If I were more of a classic crime fan I can imagine taking great pleasure in having a little physical library of them. Death in the Tunnel sounds the stronger Burton though.

    Ali, did I miss a review of it by you? Do you have a link?

    Emma, since that’s what I think’s best about it (because it definitely overshadows the crime aspects) I think you can safely pass. It suffers from not being quite one thing or the other. The Dennis Wheatley’s I’ve read embrace the supernatural elements and work better for having that focus. I’m not against mixing genres, but it does need to be carefully done or you risk doing neither thing quite as well as you might have. Still, this found an audience and it probably is fair to say that when it was published genre lines were less rigid than today. I doubt you’d have liked it back then either though.

  15. Hi Resh Susan, you got caught in the spam filter for some random reason but happily I noticed and freed up your post. They are a fun series, but this doesn’t seem to be the best of them so it might not be the best to start with. I read it partly because of the horror elements, but that’s what arguably makes it weaker for most readers. Guy’s blog has reviewed several of these and has a page on them and I’d really recommend checking that out if you have an interest.

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