(creator: Thurman Warriner)
Archdeacon Toft of Toncester (actually the Venerable Grantius Fauxlihough Toft), who dresses in the appropriate English ecclesiastical garb of gaiters, is "a giant of a man with a vast face and a noble tier of chins, with legs round and solid as the pillars of Gaza". He describes himself as "a man of many parts", having previously been rector of St Aidans in Soho, and Chaplain to the Actors' Church Union. He says that at Toncester he now has "more far-flung parishes, nattering parsons, and sharp-tongued parsons' wives that I can well look after".
His old friend, Mr Ambo, "had known the archdeacon for many years and held him in precisely that veneration which his appelation demanded. Beneath his eccentricity, often assumed, Mr Ambo believed him to be indeed riche of holy thought and werk - that Cristes gospel trewly wolde preach. He is altogether an engaging, surprising and humorous character.
Toft mentions "an impecunious nephew who pleaded that he should be allowed to put our little adventures on record, no doubt for his own profit". Toft says that he himself reads "three whodunnits a week. I have to keep my sanity among the malice and scandal-mongering of the Vicar's Close. And what destroys my illusions more than anything else? I'll tell you! You read about a sensible, likeable 'tec who finds a Hollywood star impaled on the mast of the Empire state Building ... Twelve months later the same 'tec finds the body of a Peruvian princess sitting among the waxen counterfeits of Tussaud's, and ever after that he can't ride a bus or picnic on Box Hill without stumbling over a corpse. That's beyond anyone's swallowing. The way these writers introduce their stock characters to a new corpse every year is beyond me." But, as his friend, Mr Ambo, reminds him, "We're not dealing with fiction now." But it is "transatlantic fiction of the baser kind" that has led Toft to absorb "its idiom with results sometimes surprising" as when he suddenly says, 'Let's get the hell out of here", or enquires, "Think I ought to pack a rod?".
It is shrewd old Mr Ambo (an ex-estate agent and valuer, "a childless widower of thirty years' standing .... a gentle man, a scholar, a man with kind eyes and a humorous mouth" who does most of the deducting), often with the help of clever, if unscrupulous, John Franklin Cornelius Scotter, "director, chief operative, and sole proprietor of London's most disreputable private enquiry agency", who is "a youngish, tall and bony man with yellow hair and a disruptive taste in clothing" who believes in saying exactly what he thinks. The three of them make quite a trio.
Archdeacon Toft is the creation of Thurman Warriner (1904-1974) who had a brief theatrical career in his early youth, then became a poulty farmer and cinema technician. During the war, he worked in an aircraft factory. He had some fifty short stories published after the war, so then gave up his old job to become a full-time writer. His novels mostly include Archdeacon Toft, his old friend Mr Amber and the private eye, Scotter. In these books, according to the original Penguin blurb, "He is interested not so much in police methods and procedure as in the way life contrives to make saints and murderers out of the same basic material". His favourite pastimes were walking and finding obscure pubs and churches. He also wrote under the names of Simon Troy and John Kersey.
Method in His Murder (1950)
Mr Ambo himself, is a "neatly-dressed almost dapper lttle man", who, after a tough war, had dedicated his life "to the cult of ease". At one point he says he won't write off the idea of a devil. "Knowing human nature as I do," he says, "I see no harm in keeping an open mind. As the old lady said in explanation of her genufluctions at each mention of Satan's name, one never knows, and it costs nothing to be polite." He later explains that he was speaking "with my tongue very much in my cheek, I'm afraid."
But the Archdeacon says he believes in the devil "from the standpoint of plain common sense ... How can I believe in the indwelling power of the Holy Ghost without belief also in the indwelling power of a prince of darkness? .... It's unfashionable nowadays to speak of sin. Crime is merely a reflex, we say, of social conditions. To make us all pure and holy, give us a good water-supply and three square meals a day and cover-all social insurance, But there was Belsen, wasn't there? .... Believe in Belsen and you have to believe in the devil".
The best bits of the book are when the two old men work together, as when they break into a suspect's house in the search for incriminating evidence. When the locked-in inhabitants are woken, Toft knows what to do: "Above the din of voices and rattling doors there suddenly arose another voice that boomed and thundered in that confined space like the trump of doom. The mighty bell-like tones of Archdeacon Toft "who was bellowing out the Commination - the condemnation of the wicked: Cursed are the unmerciful, fornicators, and adulterers, covetous person ..." This startled the householders enough to let the two old men escape, even if the Archdeacon immediately fell into a garden pond.
Unfortunately though, and particularly when Toft is not present, it all gets bogged down with apparently endless conversations and conjectures. The final chapters are drawn out to such an extent that, in the end, I must admit that I lost all interest in the complications of the plot. But you're left with the feeling that, given this combination of characters, things can only get better.
Ducats in Her Coffin (1951)
And so Mr Ambo gets involved with the strange, even crazy, Shearstone family who own the quarries where there is a "grotesque pillar of stone" that arises out of the quarry, and gave Warriner the initial idea for the story. Mr Ambo himself does just about all of the detecting, although he involves Scotter in the rough work. Archdeacon Toft, unfortunately, plays a very minor role, and we see more of his brother, Canon Gilbert Archimides Toft (who turns out also to live at Urmsbury where the Shearstone family live, and is as thin as the archdeacon is fat). The two brothers have childhood nicknames for each other: Wigs (for the Canon ), and Wogs (for the Archdeacon). "Wigs," pronounced the Archdeacon, "is an ascetic. Consequently, he will be a mine of information concerning every scandal, misdeamour and mischief that has occurred in his parish during the past twenty years." And he goes on to explain: "All malice, scandal-mongering and narrowness of spirit derives from teetotallers, non-smokers and celibates." However, the Archdeacon agrees to stay with him "Not in the interests of my own comfort, Wigs, but because it'll inconvenience you and you need shaking up".
Scotter is no angel either. "I'm paid to snoop," he tells one woman suspect, "and snoop I'm going to whether you like it or not. I'm going to find out who killed Rosalind.... Start any monkey-tricks and I'll find out what I want my own way, and if I can make it hurt you, I'll get a lot of pleasure out of it." Not much of a charmer, is he? It's not immediately obvious why the author seems to have a soft spot for him.
The characters, though, are more interesting than the intricacies of the plot that are gradually revealed through many long interviews and discussions. There are some dramatic moments, but even stolen jewellery and gold bars can't really bring the story to life. It all seems very dated. Pity there wasn't more of the Archdeacon and/or his brother.
Death's Dateless Night (1952)
The way that Philip offers to trade information with the police may not be very likely. Even the Police Inspector agrees "it is a trifle unorthodox, but that seems fair enough". It seems that hypnotism/illusionism may be involved. Perhaps an attempt has been made to evoke the Devil once too often. "Or perhaps, create a devil where he didn't exist before," said the Archdeacon, finding this vastly to his liking. "I believe it has been said of the Catholic Church that if no God dwelt in heaven, one would spontaneously be created by the ritual practices and the faith inspired".
Towards the end, Scotter points out, "Every book I read gives a whole list of phoney reasons why suspects A, B. and C don't walk straight into the nearest police station and talk it all over with a nice fatherly sergeant. That's the only way they're spun out to three hundred pages". But this book isn't spun out to anything like that length, and is intriguing and entertaining to read throughout. Recommended.
The Doors of Sleep (1955)
The Archdeacon says, "I'm allergic to evil ... and evil most certainly dwells in that house. As it dwells latently in every house and in all of us, but there, conditions are ripe for its outcropping". "Occultism, metaphysics and wax images" are all involved. He, Mr Ambo, and private investigator Scotter, (not forgetting his helpmate Lottie), get to work to identify the murderer. They make a formidable team. As the Archdeacon points out to Ambo, "I'm a good deal cleverer than you. But you enjoy more wisdom". It is Scotter who goes in for the really direct approach: "Did you kill your brother, or didn't you? I don't like wasting other people's time or money". It is this combination that gets results. But the Archdeacon doesn't believe in telling the police too much: "The Inspector already has a great deal to worry him. Why inflict more upon him?"
We discover more and more about the trio as book follows book. Mr Ambo has "been lonely for thirty years". He had been married "long ago. When the world was very different. Incredible to think that she would have been sixty this year ... She never wanted to grow old. We never thought we would in those days, of course - the young never do. She used to say, if only she could grow to be - thirty or so, and stay there! Well, she did." And we are made to care about her too.
The ever-present humour adds to the book's appeal. ""When did he die, doc?" asks Police Inspector Lavender. "Twenty-two-and-a-half minutes past four," the doctor said, and then glanced apologetically at his audience. "Sorry, gentlemen. That's a little joke between the Inspector and myself. Based on the reading of too much fiction."
Death's Bright Angel (1956)
Mr Ambo, remembering his own tragic love affair many years ago, feels for them. "I only wish I could do more," he tells her. And Archdeacon Toft thinks of her as a sort of saint. He says, "I distrust theology at any time" but "I believe there are many more saints than appear in the calendar, and I believe the only qualification for sainthood is great love". This he sees in the young couple's feelings for each other. "Something's going to happen," Toft tells Ambo. "I believe in evil as a spiritual force capable of incarnation, and I can smell its birth .... Quarter of a million is a lot of money. An Archdeacon might murder his Bishop for less".
Inspired by Julia's love, Andrew seems to be makling a slow recovery, much to his relations' disgust and his doctor's surprise: "This is one of those things I don't understand." the doctor admits.
But then Toft finds the murdered body of a popular local girl, May. "In all the murder mysteries I've read," Andrew said, "the world seemed full of people with motives for murder. This one's differen. Everybody seems to have liked her", and that includes Julias's brother Elton, who had once been her lover
Inspector Goudge, working on his very first murder case, suspects that Elton must be the murderer. Then there's a long period of waiting while investigations are carried out. As the author ponts out, "The romantic aspect of murder has been glorified to an unreasonable extent by popular fiction. There is high drama and glamour, there are chases, dramatic interludes, there are second and third murders which point the way to the first. There are cloddish policemen and brilliant dilettantes with connections in high society. The dreariness of murder is seldom mentioned. Nor is the time of waiting; that harrowing period when everyone knows that patient, methodical enquiries are being made; when hour by hour a trap seems to be closing".
Although Toft "had assumed temporal and spiritual control of the entire household", he still finds finds it necessary to send for his friend Scotter, the thoroughly disreputable private enquiry agent, whose aggressive questioning eventually produces results.
But let the last words be with the Archdeacon, a man of pronounced views: "There are times," said the Archdeacon. "when I'm thankful my God isn't quite so respectable as the average churchman's. Not quite so respectable, but with a good deal more kindliness and tolerance and a better sense of humour. Yes, a very keen sense of humour .... He made people." And, right at the end, he explains , " I believe .... that the wheels of the universe run in the oil of a divine love beyond all earthly comprehension. I believe that real and unselfish human love is the nearest approach to it we can know. And I believe that divine and human love together can conquer any evil in earth or hell. Amen!"
She Died, Of Course (1958)
Heavenly Bodies (1960)
"All our problems," Archdeacon Toft reminds Mr Ambo, " were based upon human relationships, all our efforts were attempts to readjust them". But here the human relationships just aren't all that interesting. Toft remains the most appealing character. He tells Ambo: "I have suspicions, grave ones ... You're less accustomed than I am to watching parsons. I know them the way a trainer knows his sea-lions. And some of them, let me tell you, balance quite as cleverly. And, alas, topple as foolishly." As does Toft himself when his considerable weight causes him to crash through some rotten stairs leading to derelict rooms which they are investigating. "I'm alive, by God's providence," says Toft. "No bones broken, unless possibly a rib. ... We'll get the hell out of here." "This is the last time," says Mr Ambo severely. "We've done this sort of thing before, but never again."
|As it says on this 1st edition dust jacket: "Chosen for Enjoyment". You don't have to take the lurid picture too seriously.|
|You'll be luck to find a copy of this book, as it is seldom offered for sale.|
|Just as the books get better as the series progresses, so do the dust jackets.This stylish jacket belongs to the English hardback of the last book.