Sunday, July 12, 2015

Review: Malcolm Sage, Detective by Herbert Jenkins

by Mary

Malcolm Sage was an accountant who was always finding "little wangles" in the books. Refused for war service by the army, he worked for the Ministry of Supply and found a much larger wangle, eventually transferring to Department Z in Whitehall. The department handled secret service work during the war and now the conflict is over and the Department is being demobilised, Sir John Dene, his old chief, agrees with Lady Dene Sage should be set up in a private detective agency.

Sage has a "bald, conical head", a "determined" jaw, and protruding ears. His keen gaze is aided by gold-rimmed spectacles and his "shapely" hands are always restless, drawing on his blotting pad, balancing a spoon on a knife, constructing geometrical designs with matches, that sort of thing. He is kind, quiet, and never smiles. Nevertheless Sage's Whitehall staff is devoted to him and it is from their ranks he chooses a handful to work at his agency. Gladys Norman will continue as his secretary and other departmental personnel engaged for the new venture are Sage's assistant James Thompson, office junior William Johnson, and chauffeur Arthur Tims.

This collection of investigations kicks off with The Strange Case of Mr Challoner, who was found an apparent suicide in a locked library. However, foul play is suspected and Richard Dane, Mr Challener's nephew is fingered as the likely culprit, having violently quarrelled with the dead man the day before.

In The Surrey Cattle-Maiming Mystery, Sage is called in to hunt down the person responsible for the crimes. There had been almost thirty going back over two years, despite villagers organising a committee to keep watch at night. Peppery General Sir John Hackblock, whose mare has been similarly mutilated, asks Sage to look into the matter since he is not satisfied with what he was told when he consulted Scotland Yard.

The Stolen Admiralty Memorandum opens with a summons to a country mansion where the Prime Minister, the First Lord of the Admiralty, and the Secretary of War are both weekend house guests -- and all are in a panic. The memorandum has disappeared and could do a great deal of damage in the wrong hands. Who is responsible for its theft? There's plenty of suspects, including over a dozen house servants and a number of other guests along with their ladies' maids and valets.

Next we have an interlude in which secretary Gladys dines with Sage's assistant Thompson. Gladys debates why the staff is so loyal to their employer, with a nice little sideswipe at expectations raised by romance novels (E. M. Hull sprang to mind!). Their conversation explains how Gladys came to work for Sage and where Thompson first met their employer, fleshing out the lives of the bureau employees as also happens elsewhere. The reader never has the impression the staff are spear carriers whose role is to admire Sage's brilliance, and learning something of their lives was an attractive sidelight.

Then it's back to criminous business with The Holding Up of Lady Glanedale, wife of margarine magnate Sir Roger Glanedale. She has been robbed at gun point in a nocturnal burglary at the family's country house. The Twentieth Century Insurance Corporation Limited calls Sage in to investigate the circumstances and find the missing jewelry.

The McMurray Mystery deals with Professor James McMurray, found murdered in a locked laboratory. It is a particularly mysterious matter because the body of the professor displays a strangely youthful appearance. McMurray's friend and philanthropist Sir Jasper Chambers was the last person to talk to the professor, who was in the habit of living in his laboratory for days on end and refusing to admit anyone for any reason. How then did his murderer get in and out and what is the role of marmalade in the affair?

A flurry of scandalous poison pen letters allege a vicar's daughter and his curate are carrying on an intrigue. Naturally these foul communications cause much distress and agitate the villagers of Gylston and its surrounding area. The Gylston Slander sees Sage called in to find the culprit.

Charley Burns is The Missing Heavyweight, who disappears on the eve of an important fight on which many have wagered large sums. Where has he gone and why? Was he taken ill, kidnapped, or did he run away, afraid to fight? This particular entry includes an excellent example of Sage's deductions from evidence, in this case a patch of garden soil. Unlike some of the more startling deductions made by Holmes, here as in other stories the detective's explanations seem reasonable and the reader is left with the impression they too could have made the same conclusions, if not as quickly.

In the final story, Lady Dene Calls on Malcolm Sage, Lady Dene arrives at the bureau with an unusual aim. To the amazement of the staff she's there to decorate Sage's office with vast quantities of red and white roses on the anniversary of the agency's founding and to present him with an antique platinum and lapis lazuli ring from her husband and herself to set off his "lovely" hand. To the astonishment of secretary Gladys and disbelief of Thompson, Sage accepts the gift -- and smiles at Lady Dene.

Verdict: Malcolm Sage is clever and yet an "ordinary shmoe" protagonist surrounded by a likeable staff. It would be difficult not to warm to him and them. No astounding leaps of deduction or parade of esoteric knowledge here! Sages uses common sense, a keen eye, and the occasional bit of psychology to solve the cases he investigates. I enjoyed this collection a great deal.

e-text: Malcolm Sage, Detective

1 comment:

  1. Excellent review, Mary. The book could have been the basis for one of those wonderful British TV crime mysteries (There isn't one. I checked YouTube and all they have is an audiobook version). I wonder if the inspiration behind The Surrey Cattle-Maiming Mystery was the George Edalji case.