Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
The British Library Crime Classics series has concentrated on two areas so far: Victorian rarities, and forgotten novels of the Golden Age. With John G. Brandon's A Scream In Soho they have entered a third field: the British inter-war thriller.
Brandon, an Australian who moved to London via South Africa, seems to have found no need to explore the rest of the country: titles featuring West End actress's tragedies, deaths in Downing Street, in Y and in D Division, Mayfair and Pimlico, as well as Bond Street, Regent Street and Jermyn Street indicate the narrow range of his interests. In fact, he heard a scream in Soho in 1940 only three years after he had placed a murder there. This may have been due to his prodigious production rate – from ten to fifteen titles a year – which left him little time for travel and research.
In the case of A Scream In Soho it also means that even today, should you want to, you could revisit all the sites and streets mentioned, though you will not be able to revisit the buildings mentioned, for the book is set in the early months of 1940, before the destruction of the Blitz.
Many of Brandon's works were written for the paperback libraries of the time, mainly Sexton Blake. Those stories, though, may have been expansions of contributions to “The Thriller”, the British equivalent of an American pulp magazine, with the characters changed (Leslie Charteris satisfied the demand for Saint books by cannibalizing his earlier works in a similar way). The Sexton Blake books were novellas, usually 64 pages; an author had to rework his material again if he was to achieve hardback publication.
From Martin Edwards' introduction it is not clear if that is how Brandon produced A Scream In Soho, or whether this book was an original. Certainly it features one of his series heroes, Detective Inspector McCarthy. It also has many of the characteristics of the inter-war thriller: dubious foreigners, bludgeonings in dark alleys, titled nobility, gangs; and all of them kept under the thumb of irregular policemen, such as Brandon's McCarthy.
Avoid reading the back-cover blurb or Martin Edwards' introduction until you are at least half-way through the book because the original scream, the missing body, its eventual discovery and the consequences of the post-mortem make fascinating and original reading; later Brandon starts playing with points-of-view which spoils some of the mystery and introduces criminal characters, such as a villainous dwarvish servant, who were clichés by the end of the First World War, let alone at the start of the Second, which is why so many of this type of thriller have lost interest today.
On the other hand, mentioning that post-mortem again, the student of crime literature might find it interesting to compare its details with the famous re-write Dorothy L Sayers had to make to her first novel Whose Body? (1923) to make it publishable; especially the cryptic remarks the Divisional Surgeon makes to McCarthy regarding the clothes that the murder victim wore “habitually”.
There is a bigger historical interest in this book, though. It is set in the black-out after the outbreak of war, before the fall of France, with Italy still officially neutral. Jewish émigrés, anti-Nazis and refugees are found throughout the city. While the Assistant Commissioner of Police is happy to take tea with one such Austrian baroness, McCarthy's own statements imply that incomers are potential fifth columnists, and the tone of the book amplifies his xenophobia. Come May 1940 and paranoid reaction after Dunkirk many an innocent refugee found themselves mistreated badly, as described in Peter and Leni Gillman's history Collar The Lot! (1980) as well as the memoirs of many eminent scientists since, where books such as A Scream In Soho must have contributed to that mistaken paranoia at the time.
Some later detail adds interest to the plot (there is a good description of coalmen's dress and work as McCarthy uses their delivery to infiltrate a suspect's house, for instance*) but it is the better first half and some interesting historical detail make A Scream In Soho a book to look out for.
* In fact, Brandon's bibliography online at GADetection reveals that blue-collar work provided him with plenty of material: pawnshops, kiosks, ice cream sellers, street musicians, pigeon lofts, and taxi cab ramps (ramp=fraud) all feature in his titles.