There are some mystery authors of whom it may be said that their real lives read as if they were characters in their own sensational fiction. Surely that's true of Sir Basil Thomson, another of those Golden Age authors whose work has slipped into obscurity. In Thomson's case, he was already in his 70s when he began writing a series of what today we call police procedurals, featuring a young man named Richardson, who begins his career as a young police constable in Richardson's First Case, published in 1933, and who, by the last book in the series just four years later, has become an Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard. According to mystery writer and historian Martin Edwards, Thomson's literary career began after an amazing lifetime of real adventure, including time spent as a colonial administrator, an assistant to the Prime Minister of Tonga (possibly, according to Edwards, he may even have been the Prime Minister of Tonga), the governor of some notorious British prisons, an interrogator of wartime spies including Mata Hari, a real-life Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard - and he was also arrested and prosecuted for an "offence of indecency" in London's Hyde Park.
As I said, it's a pretty amazing real-life saga. Thomson certainly put his own knowledge of real police procedures, as they were in the early 1930s, into his series of mysteries featuring Richardson. Dean Street Press has now republished all eight of those novels. The first book, Richardson's First Case, is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
For Police Constable Richardson, the case began with a fatal accident on a rainy afternoon. He heard, rather than saw, a big car lurch to one side with a squeal of brakes. When it stopped, what looked at first like a bundle of old clothes was lying in the street. It was the body of a pedestrian who had run into the street, practically in front of the big car, whose horrified driver was unable to stop before hitting him. From that beginning, Police Constable Richardson was drawn into a case of an accidental death compounded by a murder. And, he would soon discover, the disposition of a rather large fortune would depend on discovering who had died first - the accident victim or the murder victim.
Thomson drew on his own experiences at Scotland Yard to make the procedures followed by Richardson and his superiors as realistic as possible. In this first volume in the series, Richardson’s contributions in detection are, of necessity, limited, because he really is at the bottom of the investigative ladder – but his superiors, who come to admire Richardson’s abilities, find him industrious and ingenious in some of the ways that he operates. It is Richardson’s willingness to act as part of a team, and his intelligence in finding the best ways for him to be useful to that team, that will propel him up the ladder as a detective. Thomson provides believable characters and enough surprises and twists to keep things moving right to the end. The publisher provided me with an e-book version of Richardson's First Case for this review, and it's also available in print. The book also features an excellent introduction from Martin Edwards, as I noted above. Both Thomson's fiction and his real-life career are worthy of some renewed attention.