Much to the inspector’s frustration, Merrion assesses the situation and believes that the key to the mystery lies in the dead man’s life and actions before arriving at Faston Bishop. Why did he choose this village? How did he come by this reserve of money? And what would explain those tattoos on his face? The amateur theorist begins an investigation of his own, one that takes him to London’s Chinese dock districts, where he is able to find the evidence he needs to return to Faston Bishop and flush out the murderer.
Note that I have only read around twenty mysteries from the prolific Cecil John Charles Street, but from that sampling I tend to enjoy his Miles Burton titles featuring Arnold and Merrion more than his John Rhode entries featuring Dr. Lancelot Priestley. (The Rhode plots are more prone to involve “scientific investigation” and testing of conditions to simulate the crime; I also find the stolid doctor’s personality both uninviting and rather generic.) In Crown Passage, there is an interesting rivalry between Scotland Yard official and amateur sleuth that was not as pronounced in the other Burton books I have tried. That small clash of personalities is welcome, as Street’s mysteries sometimes leave characterization (of both detective and suspects) a little too bland to stir a reader’s engagement.
Additionally, while the circle of suspects is small, the author allows his cast to have backstories and emotions – including potential or actual jealousy, grief, guilt, and anger – which helps make the plotline more immediate and gives the characters dimension. Although essentially pieces on the chessboard for Arnold and Merrion to study as they try to figure out the endgame, Mr. and Mrs. Crudwell still elicit sympathy as a couple struggling in their relationship and caught up in a crime that will shine a harsh light on their domestic troubles.
Street as Burton paces the clues and the revelations well, and Desmond Merrion’s arrival at the halfway mark is welcome, largely because the reader knows Arnold’s initial theory is earnest but almost surely in error. (For whither the next hundred pages if the policeman solved it out of the gate?) My chief criticism with Murder in Crown Passage, then, comes in the form of Sergeant Dobie, a career copper with an encyclopedic memory of city criminals. He arrives a few chapters before the finish and gives the detectives all the background they need to place the enigmatic victim in the proper light. Without this late-arriving information by this very convenient visitor, the reader would not be able to arrive at the same destination by clues alone; in that respect, Crown Passage falls short of fair play. Dobie is employed rather like Sophocles uses The Messenger, who catches King Oedipus up on some family details right before the climax.
Enjoyable while not truly remarkable, Murder in Crown Passage is a solid entry in the Miles Burton series, offering up a puzzle at the outset, dogged investigation, accumulating clues, and the solving of the mystery. And for this world-weary reader heading into 2021, often times a Golden Age detective story provides exactly the escapism one desperately needs.
This book was published in the U.S. as The Man with the Tattooed Face (Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1937).