James Anderson’s lighthearted puzzle mysteries both parodied and paid homage to the classic English Country House Mystery.
James Anderson’s lasting contribution to mystery fiction consists of three novels about English house-party murders, all taking place in the same country house, Lord Burford’s historic Alderley, and all investigated by the same easily-overlooked but sneakily clever policeman, Inspector Wilkins: The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy (1975; US 1977), The Affair of the Mutilated Mink Coat (1981), and The Affair of the 39 Cufflinks (2003). Clearly reflecting a love of the classical puzzles of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, unapologetically artificial and light-hearted, they managed both to parody and to provide genuine examples of the traditional British detective novel between World Wars.
James Anderson (1936-2007) was born in Wiltshire of Welsh parents and lived most of his life near Cardiff. He had a history degree from University of Reading and listed as pre-novel-writing jobs “salesman, copywriter and freelance journalist…. His interests include[d] cricket and vintage films and he [was] a committed Christian.” He was unmarried “though not from any lack of inclination.”
Not notably prolific, with 13 books over a career of more than thirty years, Anderson did not start out as a traditional puzzle-spinner. When he entered the mystery field in the late 1960s, the classical detective story was out of favor, to put it mildly. True, Agatha Christie was still writing and making the bestseller list; Golden Agers like Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen were still producing new books; P.D. James and Emma Lathen had both emerged in the early 1960s. But with the great success of Ian Fleming, John le Carré, Len Deighton, and others, international thrillers were in the ascendency. One or two mysterious deaths, ran the popular wisdom, were not enough to intrigue the jaded reader; the fate of the world had to be hanging by a thread in every book. Longtime mystery fans read spy fiction because that’s what you were supposed to read, and writers new to the field concluded that was what you were supposed to write.
So Anderson started with spy stuff, and he was good at it. His first novel, Assassin (1969; US 1971), introduced Mikael Petros, citizen of an unnamed European country, who took on the title role reluctantly and under duress. In The Abolition of Death (1974; US 1975), an effectively plotted and written semi-science-fictional thriller full of Hitchcockian suspense set-pieces, Petros must effect the escape of a scientist who has developed a drug that will retard aging and may eventually make immortality possible. The potential ramifications of such a discovery are explored on practical and moral grounds, and the novel has a strong religious undertone.
The first line of Blood-Stained Egg Cosy might have suggested Anderson was still in the land of international intrigue, albeit of an earlier time. One character asks another, “How well do you know Adolf Hitler?” But it’s soon clear this is quite a different kind of mystery. Most promising for traditionalist nostalgics are the list of characters, followed by a floor plan of the first floor of Alderley. Many of the house party guests are introduced in short scenes at the beginning of the book, very much in the Agatha Christie tradition. They include a wealthy Texan and his secretary, a poor young woman who recently lost her salesgirl job, a Member of Parliament (brother to the Earl of Burford), a retired Naval officer, a foreign envoy and his aide, and a “young man about town.” There’s also a butler on hand to draw suspicion and the menacing figure of a society jewel thief known as the Wraith. Other familiar elements include the host’s gun collection, a secret passage, the prospect of 13 at dinner, stormy weather, and a gathering of the suspects at the end, but they are played with a completely straight face and worked out with satisfying complexity and generous clues.
When the local cop appears on the scene almost halfway through the book, he proves to be easily underestimated in the manner of Columbo. A self-described “simple country bobby,” Detective Inspector Wilkins is somewhat in the mode of Leo Bruce’s Sergeant Beef, but without that character’s underlying arrogance. His frequent tagline: “I’m not sanguine.”
When I reviewed this book for EQMM in June 1977, editor Queen (Fred Dannay) thought me excessive in my praise. (That’s okay—he didn’t always see eye to eye with Anthony Boucher, either.) I wondered if my pleasure at encountering an intricate, pure puzzle novel caused me to overrate it, and also whether Anderson could possibly repeat the trick. Vindication came with Mutilated Mink Coat, in which murder and Wilkins return to Alderley, this time with Scotland Yard’s pretentious and arrogant St. John Algood also on the case. Reminding me in his apparently low self-esteem of Richard and Frances Lockridge’s Nathan Shapiro, Wilkins again got the job done. Though 39 Cufflinks was not published until 22 years later, I suspect it was written shortly after the others. It is another gem.
Anderson would write several nonseries books—Additional Evidence and Angel of Death are notable for their clever plotting—and a couple of Murder She Wrote novelizations of TV scripts, before Donald Bain got the permanent job of creating new cases for Jessica Fletcher. But it’s those three Inspector Wilkins cases that are his principal legacy in the mystery genre—and a continuing joy to readers.
This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Summer Issue #120.