I had so much fun with this slightly ridiculous classic mystery set in a second-hand bookshop!
Book: The Mysterious Mr Badman by WF Harvey
Publication date: 10th November 2022 (originally published 1934)
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by British Library Publishing. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: violence, injury, death and murder.
The note read: “Will the gentleman who took by mistake a copy of Bunyan’s Life and Death of Mr. Badman, return it as soon as possible, as the book is in demand.”
On holiday in Keldstone visiting his nephew, Jim, blanket manufacturer Athelstan Digby agrees to look after the old bookshop on the ground floor of his lodgings while his hosts are away. On the first day of his tenure, a vicar, a chauffeur and an out-of-town stranger enquire after The Life and Death of Mr. Badman by John Bunyan. When a copy mysteriously arrives at the shop in a bundle of books brought in by a young scamp, and is subsequently stolen, Digby moves to investigate the significance of the book along with his nephew, and the two are soon embroiled in a case in which the stakes have risen from antiquarian book-pinching to ruthless murder.
First published in a limited run in 1934, this exceedingly rare and fast-paced bibliomystery set against the landscapes of Yorkshire is long overdue its return to print.
The main thing I can say about this book is that it’s an enormous amount of fun. From its farcical beginning, as three men oh-so-innocently ask a bewildered temporary bookseller for a copy of a rare book, through its various shenanigans as the mystery unfolds, this is a fast and enjoyable read that never seems to take itself too seriously. It would make a wonderful episode of a Sunday teatime mystery show, because it’s got lots of fun set-pieces and characters taking exceedingly silly actions, and the whole thing rubs along in a very comforting way (despite the subject matter) to a conclusion that suits the story down to the ground.
This is vague, of course, because I don’t want to spoil a single second, but fans of the Crime Classics series should be delighted with this – it’s one of my favourites yet, because it’s just so classic-feeling and yet whimsical. The writing is great, with just enough humour to keep it spry and engaging, but it never crosses the border into outright parody or mockery – it feels like it was written with great affection for the detective genre, and it’s hard not to read it with the same affection. I’d definitely be keen to track down more books by Harvey, if they’re all this much fun to read. The characters are very human, and easy to get along with for the most part, and the puzzle is very satisfying.
If you’re thinking about starting to read some classic crime, this would be a wonderful place to dip your toe into the waters, because it really is an easy-going book with an enjoyable payoff. Who hasn’t daydreamed about borrowing a dusty little bookshop, and the excitement that might ensue? A highly recommended read – five out of five cats!