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
Greyladies publishers of Edinburgh have continued to slip one or two rare crime stories into the lists of interwar fiction they re-publish, and one of the latest is E M Channon’s The Chimney Murder, which appeared in 1929. It was her first detective story (Greyladies have already published her second, the conveniently titled Twice Dead), though without a detective protagonist it is perhaps better to call it a crime story.
Set in a miserable, lower-middle class suburb of London, we discover that “the chimney murder” is actually a newspaper headline. Appearing in the press shocks the respectable Binns family more than the discovery that a murder has taken place in their house, and that the severed parts of the victim’s body have been stuffed up the various chimneys of the house. If Mrs Binns had not come back from a rare day out with a chill requiring the lighting of a fire (too early in the autumn for a respectable family, unless there were illness) those body parts might linger longer, to be confused later with “the drains” no doubt.
Unfortunately for the Binns, Mr Binns, a minor clerk in the city, is a tyrant at home, subject to rages, and heard in the garden complaining about his neighbour. Whose head, too big for a chimney, but small enough to slip under the cabbage leaves and ash of a neighbour’s dustbin might be found not long after? Said missing neighbour. Bad news for Binns.
Worse news for Binns’ daughter, or even worse news for the neighbour’s son, the love they have had to keep secret cannot be declared or consummated. Romeo and Juliet were kept apart by a family feud but in the suburbs, which is the less respectable, being the son of a murder victim, or being the daughter of a suspected murderer? It scarcely matters, as people will talk.
In echoes of some of R Austin Freeman’s Dr Thorndyke plots, unlucky coincidences cause suspicion and lucky coincidences put evidence into the hands of the police, but Channon’s story can hardly be said to end happily. As an account of the horrors of suburban living and the struggles of the clerks on “thirty bob a week” between the wars it is condemnatory, and yet somehow surreal that a murderer had spent an afternoon stuffing body parts up chimneys, and all without a drip of blood on the kindling.
If you liked Andrew Taylor’s 2008 Bleeding Heart Square, or enjoyed George Orwell’s 1938 suburban novel Coming Up For Air, you should fill in the picture with The Chimney Murder.