Authors: Basil Thomson
“What are you looking for, sir?” he said.
Scotland Yard is concerned with the murderer, or murderers, of the mysterious Bernard Pitt. The dead man is discovered with a false identity, courtesy of the many forged papers and documents found with him.
The trail leads to France, where we discover why a French milliner chose to ride in a laundry basket, why the two American men are so interested in their wives' hat trimmings, and why it is so difficult for the French police to touch a criminal with high political connections. But the murder of Bernard Pitt was only an incident in the diabolical plot linking a network of criminals on both sides of the Channel.
The Milliner's Hat Mystery
was first published in 1937. This new edition, the first for many decades, includes an introduction by crime novelist Martin Edwards, acclaimed author of genre history
The Golden Age of Murder
“Sir Basil Thomson is a past-master in the mysteries of Scotland Yard.”
Times Literary Supplement
To my sister
In hope that she will forgive the use to which I have put her imposing row of barns
stranger-than-fiction life was packed so full of incident that one can understand why his work as a crime novelist has been rather overlooked. This was a man whose CV included spells as a colonial administrator, prison governor, intelligence officer, and Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard. Among much else, he worked alongside the Prime Minister of Tonga (according to some accounts, he
the Prime Minister of Tonga), interrogated Mata Hari and Roger Casement (although not at the same time), and was sensationally convicted of an offence of indecency committed in Hyde Park. More than three-quarters of a century after his death, he deserves to be recognised for the contribution he made to developing the police procedural, a form of detective fiction that has enjoyed lasting popularity.
Basil Home Thomson was born in 1861 â the following year his father became Archbishop of York â and was educated at Eton before going up to New College. He left Oxford after a couple of terms, apparently as a result of suffering depression, and joined the Colonial Service. Assigned to Fiji, he became a stipendiary magistrate before moving to Tonga. Returning to England in 1893, he published
South Sea Yarns
, which is among the 22 books written by him which are listed in Allen J. Hubin's comprehensive bibliography of crime fiction (although in some cases, the criminous content was limited).Â
Thomson was called to the Bar, but opted to become deputy governor of Liverpool Prison; he later served as governor of such prisons as Dartmoor and Wormwood Scrubs, and acted as secretary to the Prison Commission. In 1913, he became head of C.I.D., which acted as the enforcement arm of British military intelligence after war broke out. When the Dutch exotic dancer and alleged spy Mata Hari arrived in England in 1916, she was arrested and interviewed at length by Thomson at Scotland Yard; she was released, only to be shot the following year by a French firing squad. He gave an account of the interrogation in
Thomson was knighted, and given the additional responsibility of acting as Director of Intelligence at the Home Office, but in 1921, he was controversially ousted, prompting a heated debate in Parliament: according to
, “for a few minutes there was pandemonium”. The government argued that Thomson was at odds with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir William Horwood (whose own career ended with an ignominious departure from office seven years later), but it seems likely be that covert political machinations lay behind his removal. With many aspects of Thomson's complex life, it is hard to disentangle fiction from fact.
Undaunted, Thomson resumed his writing career, and in 1925, he published
Mr Pepper Investigates
, a collection of humorous short mysteries, the most renowned of which is “The Vanishing of Mrs Fraser”. In the same year, he was arrested in Hyde Park for “committing an act in violation of public decency” with a young woman who gave her name as Thelma de Lava. Thomson protested his innocence, but in vain: his trial took place amid a blaze of publicity, and he was fined five pounds. Despite the fact that Thelma de Lava had pleaded guilty (her fine was reportedly paid by a photographer), Thomson launched an appeal, claiming that he was the victim of a conspiracy, but the court would have none of it. Was he framed, or the victim of entrapment? If so, was the reason connected with his past work in intelligence or crime solving? The answers remain uncertain, but Thomson's equivocal responses to the police after being apprehended damaged his credibility.
Public humiliation of this kind would have broken a less formidable man, but Thomson, by now in his mid-sixties, proved astonishingly resilient. A couple of years after his trial, he was appointed to reorganise the Siamese police force, and he continued to produce novels. These included
(1933), which Dorothy L. Sayers described in a review for the
as “not so much a detective story as a sprightly fantasia upon a detective theme.” She approved the fact that Thomson wrote “good English very amusingly”, and noted that “some of his characters have real charm.” Â Mr Pepper returned in
, but in the same year, Thomson introduced his most important character, a Scottish policeman called Richardson.Â
Thomson took advantage of his inside knowledge to portray a young detective climbing through the ranks at Scotland Yard. And Richardson's rise is amazingly rapid: thanks to the fastest fast-tracking imaginable, he starts out as a police constable, and has become Chief Constable by the time of his seventh appearance â in a book published only four years after the first. We learn little about Richardson's background beyond the fact that he comes of Scottish farming stock, but he is likeable as well as highly efficient, and his sixth case introduces him to his future wife. His inquiries take him â and other colleagues â not only to different parts of England but also across the Channel on more than one occasion: in
The Case of the Dead Diplomat
, all the action takes place in France. There is a zest about the stories, especially when compared with some of the crime novels being produced at around the same time, which is striking, especially given that all of them were written by a man in his seventies. Â
From the start of the series, Thomson takes care to show the team work necessitated by a criminal investigation. Richardson is a key connecting figure, but the importance of his colleagues' efforts is never minimised in order to highlight his brilliance. In
The Case of the Dead Diplomat
, for instance, it is the trusty Sergeant Cooper who makes good use of his linguistic skills and flair for impersonation to trap the villains of the piece. Inspector Vincent takes centre stage in
The Milliner's Hat Mystery
, with Richardson confined to the background. He is more prominent in
A Murder is Arranged
, but it is Inspector Dallas who does most of the leg-work.
Such a focus on police team-working is very familiar to present day crime fiction fans, but it was something fresh in the Thirties. Yet Thomson was not the first man with personal experience of police life to write crime fiction: Frank Froest, a legendary detective, made a considerable splash with his first novel,
The Grell Mystery
, published in 1913. Froest, though, was a career cop, schooled in “the university of life” without the benefit of higher education, who sought literary input from a journalist, George Dilnot, whereas Basil Thomson was a fluent and experienced writer whose light, brisk style is ideally suited to detective fiction, with its emphasis on entertainment. Like so many other detective novelists, his interest in “true crime” is occasionally apparent in his fiction, but although
Who Killed Stella Pomeroy?
opens with a murder scenario faintly reminiscent of the legendary Wallace case of 1930, the storyline soon veers off in a quite different direction. Â
Even before Richardson arrived on the scene, two accomplished detective novelists had created successful police series. Freeman Wills Crofts devised elaborate crimes (often involving ingenious alibis) for Inspector French to solve, and his books highlight the patience and meticulous work of the skilled police investigator. Henry Wade wrote increasingly ambitious novels, often featuring the Oxford-educated Inspector Poole, and exploring the tensions between police colleagues as well as their shared values. Thomson's mysteries are less convoluted than Crofts', and less sophisticated than Wade's, but they make pleasant reading. This is, at least in part, thanks to little touches of detail that are unquestionably authentic â such as senior officers' dread of newspaper criticism, as in
The Dartmoor Enigma
. No other crime writer, after all, has ever had such wide-ranging personal experience of prison management, intelligence work, the hierarchies of Scotland Yard, let alone a desperate personal fight, under the unforgiving glare of the media spotlight, to prove his innocence of a criminal charge sure to stain, if not destroy, his reputation.
Ingenuity was the hallmark of many of the finest detective novels written during “the Golden Age of murder” between the wars, and intricacy of plotting â at least judged by the standards of Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, and John Dickson Carr â was not Thomson's true speciality. That said,
The Milliner's Hat Mystery
is remarkable for having inspired Ian Fleming, while he was working in intelligence during the Second World War, after Thomson's death. In a memo to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Fleming said: “The following suggestion is used in a book by Basil Thomson: a corpse dressed as an airman, with despatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that has failed. I understand there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Naval Hospital, but, of course, it would have to be a fresh one.” This clever idea became the basis for “Operation Mincemeat”, a plan to conceal the invasion of Italy from North Africa.
A further intriguing connection between Thomson and Fleming is that Thomson inscribed copies of at least two of the Richardson books to Kathleen Pettigrew, who was personal assistant to the Director of MI6, Stewart Menzies. She is widely regarded as the woman on whom Fleming based Miss Moneypenny, secretary to James Bond's boss M â the Moneypenny character was originally called “Petty” Petteval. Possibly it was through her that Fleming came across Thomson's book.
Thomson's writing was of sufficiently high calibre to prompt Dorothy L. Sayers to heap praise on Richardson's performance in his third case: “he puts in some of that excellent, sober, straightforward detective work which he so well knows how to do and follows the clue of a post-mark to the heart of a very plausible and proper mystery. I find him a most agreeable companion.” The acerbic American critics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor also had a soft spot for Richardson, saying in
A Catalogue of Crime
that his investigations amount to “early police routine minus the contrived bickering, stomach ulcers, and pub-crawling with which later writers have masked poverty of invention and the dullness of repetitive questioning”.
Books in the Richardson series have been out of print and hard to find for decades, and their reappearance at affordable prices is as welcome as it is overdue. Now that Dean Street Press have republished all eight recorded entries in the Richardson case-book, twenty-first century readers are likely to find his company just as agreeable as Sayers did.