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
Golden Age fans hear of titles but find they are difficult to obtain. We are forced to rely on small publishers in most cases – Rue Morgue, Greyladies, Ostara publishing, for example, do sterling work but leave us hungry for more. Probably for cost reasons, they issue paperbacks. Lomax Press’s new edition of Take Thee A Sharp Knife is one of the finest productions I have seen – hardback in an original dust wrapper, which contains in addition to Campbell’s original novel, the transcription of an earlier draft, an introduction by Campbell’s son and a longer introduction on Campbell’s publishing history.
If you know the name of Campbell at all you probably know it from the single paragraph he receives in Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder, in the final chapter on Curiosities and Singletons. In fact, Ruthven Todd (Campbell was his nom-de-plume) and Symons were friends from the late ‘Thirties and Todd had helped Symons plot his first novel The Immaterialist Murder Case. A quick reading of Immaterialist (the name is a send-up of the surrealists) suggests that Symons wrote it himself, because it is not very good, unlike Sharp Knife.
Take Thee A Sharp Knife is an apparent impossible murder mystery with an over the top academic detective (Professor John Stubbs is very much in the line of Dr Fell, Sir Henry Merrivale and Gervase Fen) willing to help out the police. First published in 1946, the book features a stabbing in a Soho drinking den among of group of ex-servicemen and their wives, and involves black-marketry and smuggling in its background. Professor Stubbs investigates this with no less interest than if a duke had met his end during a ball at some stately home.
Forbes Gibbs’ annotations draw attention to Campbell’s use of real places, while Peter Main describes the real professor who provided him with a model. Main also notes that Campbell had known Neville Heath, the murderer executed in 1946. What may be pure coincidence is that the eventual murderer and villain unmasked by Professor Stubbs in this fiction shares a similar engineering background with George Joseph Haigh, who was executed as the Acid Bath Murderer in 1949. I wonder if Campbell had met him while they were both at large in war-time London, wittingly or unwittingly using Haigh as his template later. Given that Campbell wrote somewhere between seven and twelve novels in a two year period and his publisher went out of business soon after, there can have been no chance of a retrospective correction, while using real people as models was a common activity among Campbell’s circle. The Immaterial character Donald Breck was Symons’ fictional re-use of his friend, for instance.
Julian Symons was not the only fan of R T Campbell, Everett Bleiler had Dover Books re-publish two others of his titles (Unholy Dying and Bodies In A Bookshop) twenty-five years ago. I was lucky to pick them up because they are difficult, although not impossible, to find now. Another fan is Martin Edwards, who mentioned this reprint on his blog. I acted as soon as I heard. Since Lomax are publishing it in a limited edition of 300, I suggest you do the same.
(Intro: Peter Main and Christopher Todd; Annotations by Forbes Gibb)
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