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Authors: Robin Forsythe

The Spirit Murder Mystery

BOOK: The Spirit Murder Mystery

Robin Forsythe
The Spirit Murder Mystery

Thrusting his pipe in his pocket, he crossed to his writing desk. Extracting a heavy army-pattern revolver from a drawer, he began silently to search the whole ground floor of the house.

Eileen Thurlow, an ardent devotee of spiritualism, persuades her uncle John to join her in a séance which produces the eerie sound of organ music. Later that same night John Thurlow disappears.

A day later two bodies, one of them John Thurlow's, are found in a field half a mile away. Victims of supernatural vengeance, a fatal duel… or base murder?

Algernon Vereker, sojourning in the neighbourhood, is eager to investigate the mystery, however chilling its premise. He is joined by Inspector Heather of the Yard, and his trusty, high-spirited friend Ricky, to solve a crime which might send shivers up the spine of even a committed sceptic.
The Spirit Murder Mystery
(1936) is another satisfying but merry mystery, the fifth and last of the Algernon Vereker novels. It includes a new introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.

‘Mr. Forsythe belongs to the new school of detective story writers which might be called the brilliant flippant school.'
J.B. Priestley



Robin Forsythe (1879-1937)
Crime in Fact and Fiction

Ingenious criminal schemes were the stock in trade of those ever-so-bright men and women who devised the baffling puzzles found in between-the-wars detective fiction. Yet although scores of Golden Age mystery writers strove mightily to commit brilliant crimes on paper, presumably few of them ever attempted to commit them in fact. One author of classic crime fiction who actually carried out a crafty real-life crime was Robin Forsythe. Before commencing in 1929 his successful series of Algernon Vereker detective novels, now reprinted in attractive new editions by the enterprising Dean Street Press, Forsythe served in the 1920s as the mastermind behind England's Somerset House stamp trafficking scandal.

Robin Forsythe was born Robert Forsythe—he later found it prudent to slightly alter his Christian name—in Sialkot, Punjab (then part of British India, today part of Pakistan) on 10 May 1879, the eldest son of distinguished British cavalryman John “Jock” Forsythe and his wife Caroline. Born in 1838 to modestly circumstanced parents in the Scottish village of Carmunnock, outside Glasgow, John Forsythe in 1858 enlisted as a private in the Ninth Queen's Royal Lancers and was sent to India, then in the final throes of a bloody rebellion. Like the fictional Dr. John H. Watson of Sherlock Holmes fame, Forsythe saw major martial action in Afghanistan two decades later during the Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880), in his case at the December 1879 siege of the Sherpur Cantonment, just outside Kabul, and the Battle of Kandahar on 1 September 1880, for which service he received the War Medal with two Clasps and the Bronze Star. During the conflict Forsythe was appointed Quartermaster of the Ninth Lancers, in which capacity he served in Afghanistan, India, England and Ireland until his retirement from the British army in 1893, four years after having been made an Honorary Captain. The old solider was later warmly commended, in a 1904 history of the Ninth Lancers, for his “unbroken record of faithful, unfailing and devoted service.” His son Robin's departure from government service a quarter-century later would be rather less harmonious.

A year after John Forsythe's return to India from Afghanistan in 1880, his wife Caroline died in Ambala after having given birth to Robin's younger brother, Gilbert (“Gill”), and the two little boys were raised by an Indian ayah, or nanny. The family returned to England in 1885, when Robin was six years old, crossing over to Ireland five years later, when the Ninth Lancers were stationed at the Curragh Army Camp. On Captain Forsythe's retirement from the Lancers in 1893, he and his two sons settled in Scotland at his old home village, Carmunnock. Originally intended for the legal profession, Robin instead entered the civil service, although like E.R. Punshon, another clerk turned classic mystery writer recently reprinted by Dean Street Press, he dreamt of earning his bread through his pen by another, more imaginative, means: creative writing. As a young man Robin published poetry and short stories in newspapers and periodicals, yet not until after his release from prison in 1929 at the age of fifty would he finally realize his youthful hope of making his living as a fiction writer.

For the next several years Robin worked in Glasgow as an Inland Revenue Assistant of Excise. In 1909 he married Kate Margaret Havord, daughter of a guide roller in a Glasgow iron and steel mill, and by 1911 the couple resided, along with their one-year-old son John, in Godstone, Surrey, twenty miles from London, where Robin was employed as a Third Class Clerk in the Principal Probate Registry at Somerset House. Young John remained the Robin and Kate's only child when the couple separated a decade later. What problems led to the irretrievable breakdown of the marriage is not known, but Kate's daughter-in-law later characterized Kate as “very greedy” and speculated that her exactions upon her husband might have made “life difficult for Robin and given him a reason for his illegal acts.” 

Six years after his separation from Kate, Robin conceived and carried out, with the help of three additional Somerset House clerks, a fraudulent enterprise resembling something out of the imaginative crime fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle, Golden Age thriller writer Edgar Wallace and post Golden Age lawyer-turned-author Michael Gilbert. Over a year-and-a-half period, the Somerset House conspirators removed high value judicature stamps from documents deposited with the Board of Inland Revenue, using acids to obliterate cancellation marks, and sold the stamps at half-cost to three solicitor's clerks, the latter of whom pocketed the difference in prices. Robin and his co-conspirators at Somerset House divided among themselves the proceeds from the illicit sales of the stamps, which totaled over 50,000 pounds (or roughly $75,000 US dollars) in modern value. Unhappily for the seven schemers, however, a government auditor became suspicious of nefarious activity at Somerset House, resulting in a 1927 undercover Scotland Yard investigation that, coupled with an intensive police laboratory examination of hundreds of suspect documents, fully exposed both the crime and its culprits.

Robin Forsythe and his co-conspirators were promptly arrested and at London's Old Bailey on 7 February 1928, the Common Serjeant--elderly Sir Henry Dickens, K.C., last surviving child of the great Victorian author Charles Dickens--passed sentence on the seven men, all of whom had plead guilty and thrown themselves on the mercy of the court. Sir Henry sentenced Robin to a term of fifteen months imprisonment, castigating him as a calculating rogue, according to the Glasgow Herald, the newspaper in which Robin had published his poetry as a young man, back when the world had seemed full of promise:

It is an astounding position to find in an office like that of Somerset House that the Canker of dishonesty had bitten deep….You are the prime mover of this, and obviously you started it. For a year and a half you have continued it, and you have undoubtedly raised an atmosphere and influenced other people in that office.

Likely one of the “astounding” aspects of this case in the eyes of eminent pillars of society like Dickens was that Robin Forsythe and his criminal cohort to a man had appeared to be, before the fraud was exposed, quite upright individuals. With one exception Robin's co-conspirators were a generation younger than their ringleader and had done their duty, as the saying goes, in the Great War. One man had been a decorated lance corporal in the late affray, while another had served as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery and a third had piloted biplanes as a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps. The affair disturbingly demonstrated to all and sundry that, just like in Golden Age crime fiction, people who seemed above suspicion could fall surprisingly hard for the glittering lure of ill-gotten gain.

Crime fiction offered the imaginative Robin Forsythe not only a means of livelihood after he was released in from prison in 1929, unemployed and seemingly unemployable, but also, one might surmise, a source of emotional solace and escape. Dorothy L. Sayers once explained that from the character of her privileged aristocratic amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, she had devised and derived, at difficult times in her life, considerable vicarious satisfaction:

When I was dissatisfied with my single unfurnished room, I tool a luxurious flat for him in Piccadilly. When my cheap rug got a hole in it, I ordered an Aubusson carpet. When I had no money to pay my bus fare, I presented him with a Daimler double-six, upholstered in a style of sober magnificence, and when I felt dull I let him drive it.

Between 1929 and 1937 Robin published eight successful crime novels, five of which were part of the Algernon Vereker mystery series for which the author was best known:
Missing or Murdered
The Polo Ground Mystery
The Pleasure Cruise Mystery
The Ginger Cat Mystery
(1935) and
The Spirit Murder Mystery
(1936). The three remaining novels—
The Hounds of Justice
The Poison Duel
(1934, under the pseudonym Peter Dingwall) and
Murder on Paradise Island
(1937)—were non-series works.

Like the other Robin Forsythe detective novels detailing the criminal investigations of Algernon Vereker, gentleman artist and amateur sleuth,
Missing or Murdered
was issued in England by The Bodley Head, publisher in the Twenties of mysteries by Agatha Christie and Annie Haynes, the latter another able writer revived by Dean Street Press. Christie had left The Bodley Head in 1926 and Annie Haynes had passed away early in 1929, leaving the publisher in need of promising new authors. Additionally, the American company Appleton-Century published two of the Algernon Vereker novels,
The Pleasure Cruise Mystery
The Ginger Cat Mystery
, in the United States (the latter book under the title
Murder at Marston Manor
) as part of its short-lived but memorably titled Tired Business Man's Library of adventure, detective and mystery novels, which were designed “to afford relaxation and entertainment” to industrious American escape fiction addicts during their off hours. Forsythe's fiction also enjoyed some success in France, where his first three detective novels were published, under the titles
La Disparition de Lord Bygrave
 (The Disappearance of Lord Bygrave),
La Passion de Sadie Maberley
(The Passion of Sadie Maberley) and
Coups de feu a l'aube
(Gunshots at Dawn).

The Robin Forsythe mystery fiction drew favorable comment for their vivacity and ingenuity from such luminaries as Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Williams and J.B. Priestley, the latter acutely observing that “Mr. Forsythe belongs to the new school of detective story writers which might be called the brilliant flippant school.” Sayers pronounced of Forsythe's
The Ginger Cat Mystery
that “[t]he story is lively and the plot interesting,” while Charles Williams, author and editor of Oxford University Press, heaped praise upon
The Polo Ground Mystery
as “a good story of one bullet, two wounds, two shots, and one dead man and three pistols before the end….It is really a maze, and the characters are not merely automata.”

This second act in the career of Robin Forsythe proved sadly short-lived, however, for in 1937 the author passed away from kidney disease, still estranged from his wife and son, at the age of 57. In his later years he resided--along with his Irish Setter Terry, the “dear pal” to whom he dedicated
The Ginger Cat Mystery
--at a cottage in the village of Hartest, near Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk. In addition to writing, Robin enjoyed gardening and dabbling in art, having become an able chalk sketch artist and water colorist. He also toured on ocean liners (under the name “Robin Forsythe”), thereby gaining experience that would serve him well in his novel
The Pleasure Cruise Mystery
. This book Robin dedicated to “Beatrice,” while
Missing or Murdered
was dedicated to “Elizabeth” and
The Spirit Murder Mystery
to “Jean.” Did Robin find solace as well in human companionship during his later years? Currently we can only speculate, but classic British crime fans who peruse the mysteries of Robin Forsythe should derive pleasure from spending time in the clever company of Algernon Vereker as he hunts down fictional malefactors—thus proving that, while crime may not pay, it most definitely can entertain.

Curtis Evans

Chapter One

The stifling summer day was drawing to a close.

Towards sunset, heavy sharp-edged clouds gathered in the sky, and every now and then a cool breeze rose suddenly, blew fitfully for a while and as suddenly died away. It looked as if the long spell of dry, sultry weather was about to break with a violent storm, but when night fell the clouds had dispersed, the cool breezes subsided, and all was again clear and still, except for the restless and occasional flicker of summer lightning.

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