Weekend at Thrackley (1934): Alan Melville


This jolly novel is part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series, devoted to resurrecting overlooked treasures from the golden age of British mystery writing. While not an avid fan of crime novels, I have read one book from the series before – Death on the Cherwell – so it’s really the subject that appeals rather than the genre. In Weekend at Thrackley, first published in 1934, a rather feckless young man is surprised by an invitation to a country house weekend in Surrey. But further surprises are to come. Stuffed with dastardly villains, jewel thieves, mysterious pasts and a good dose of pluck, not to mention lashings of humour, this is just the ticket for cosy escapism.

Jim Henderson, formerly Captain, is under no illusions about what he has to offer (‘Pleasant and extremely good-looking young man, aged thirty-four, possessing no talents or accomplishments … with no relations and practically no money‘). His life is spent drifting between his club and his lodging house, governed by his maternal landlady Mrs Bertram (‘a woman who talked a great deal more than was necessary and who read the newspapers rather more than was good for her‘). But Jim’s quiet life is thrown into disarray one morning when he receives an invitation to a house party at Thrackley, a house he’s never heard of, given by Edwin Carson, a stranger who claims to be an old friend of Jim’s late father. It’s all very mysterious, but Jim discovers that his good friend the Honourable Freddie Usher has also been invited, and so the two genial young men pile into Freddie’s Rolls and scoot off to Surrey to find out what’s what.

Things don’t seem immediately appealing. Thrackley itself, for all its mod-cons and interior comforts, is a grim fortress of a house, and their host Carson is an ugly, oily sort of fellow (as Freddie observes, ‘a rum bird. A bird, Jim, of extreme rumness‘). His lack of personal charm is trumped only by that of his looming butler Jacobson, a man who clearly shares his master’s rather murky history. But Jim and Freddie hope for the best. Their fellow guests are a mixed bunch: the artistic Brampton siblings; the philanthropist Catherine Lady Stone; and the exotic dancer Raoul (here used as a woman’s name), who is currently setting the stages of London aflame. This motley crew have only one thing in common: their jewels. Edwin Carson, for all his quirks, is a renowned expert in precious stones and has invited his guests to bring their treasures for him to examine. Not that this explains Jim’s presence, because he hasn’t two pennies to rub together, let alone any jewels… but Carson’s pretty daughter Mary makes up for his puzzlement.

As the weekend progresses, however, it becomes clear that all is not as innocent as it seems. Rather than tennis and fishing and shooting and rousing walks, this country house weekend will offer murder, burglary, temporary incarceration and some jolly unfortunate encounters with the wrong end of the barrel of a revolver. As Catherine Lady Stone observes, it’s just not what one expects of a house party:

The thing is so ridiculous! Here in the heart of England … I mean, one can quite well understand this sort of thing taking place in Russia or Chicago or some of those places, but here in a peaceful old country house in England…

Unless someone can foil the shocking plots unfolding at Thrackley, and get to the bottom of their host’s mysterious plans, the group of guests have as much chance of escape ‘as a drunk man with St. Vitus’ dance has of getting to the top of Ben Nevis on a pair of antiquated rollerskates‘. However, the malefactors haven’t reckoned with Jim’s courage, Freddie’s bluster, Lady Stone’s determination and a little help from an unexpected quarter. Delightfully light and spirited, this doesn’t share an ounce of DNA with today’s grimly noir murder mysteries, but it’s just the thing for a diversion. Imagine if Agatha Christie and P.G. Wodehouse had got together to create a country house mystery. Does that sound fun? If so, give this a try. (I should mention that it was also highly educational in niche ways. For example, I never knew that Dorothy Perkins was actually the name of a kind of rose: I always thought the ladies’ clothes shop was named after its founder. You really do learn something every day.)

A jolly good romp of a story.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review

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