Friday, 10 May 2013

Penguin no. 62: The Missing Moneylender
by W. Stanley Sykes

If this was a Father Brown story it would here be described how the inspector gazed over a bleak hill-top, rounded like a grinning and sightless skull and covered with purple heather, which encroached upon its stark nudity like a fungus growth of decay and death...In this atmosphere of evil his thoughts would turn to vampires and werewolves, those monstrous Undead rejected of heaven and hell alike, until a casual remark by Father Brown would reveal the key to the whole mystery. But the unromantic and unchestertonian truth must be told - in real life and in actual fact Ridley looked out of the shop door, past the serried ranks of quack medicines and baby foods, on to a cobbled street lighted by electricity and sludgy with drizzling rain. And instead of the illuminating remark of the Deus ex machina of the novelist there was merely the sound of a man spitting noisily on the pavement.

Judging from Google, W. Stanley Sykes seems better remembered as the author of Essays on the First Hundred Years of Anaesthesia, which was comprised of three volumes, two published posthumously. But despite being an eminent anaesthetist, he was also the author of three detective novels[1] written during the 1930s, and in his obituary[2] it was noted that the first 'achieved such a popularity that it was eventually published in the Penguin series'.[3] 

The missing moneylender of the title is a Jewish man by the name of Israel Levinsky who one weekday morning, for the first time in thirty years, fails to arrive at his office on time. Inspector Ridley is diligent in investigating his whereabouts but is unable to solve the mystery of his disappearance and so calls in Scotland Yard for assistance. They assign Inspector Drury who concludes that Levinsky is more likely to have been removed than to have disappeared, and the investigation becomes instead a search for a murderer and a victim.

It is difficult to sketch the plot further without revealing too much, as the details of the murder lie at the centre of the story. It is suggested in the blurb that Sykes' motivating intention in writing the book was to plan a theoretically perfect murder, one which could be relied upon to despatch the intended victim while leaving no detectable traces to reveal how it had been done. He draws on his knowledge of contemporary medical practices and recent scientific discoveries, and fills his story with references to newly developed medical technologies, and exhumations, pathology and X-rays. He also manages to weave in discussions (or perhaps lectures) on topics as diverse as how to calculate the probability of a series of independent events, and why rugby is a better game than soccer. There is the sense that he sees himself writing for the intelligent reader who feels some pride in being well informed.

But I think this assumption may also be the book's principal flaw, for it is always clear that Sykes believes he is writing for an audience who share his prejudices[4]. At the milder end this manifests as a disdain displayed towards every person employed in a menial occupation. Waitress, chauffeur, delivery driver and housekeeper are all mocked on account of the idiosyncrasies of their speech and their assumed ineptness. They are presented as sour, incapable or unnecessarily inquisitive, and thwarting them seems to be considered almost a type of sport. There is no sense of people being differently skilled, or any recognition that the more pleasant aspects of his own lifestyle must necessarily be underpinned by the drudgery of others. At one point a detective is chastised for describing his work as hard because it makes it sound like unskilled labour, and these men (and presumably the audience) are too important for that.

A similar contempt is directed towards the Jewish victim, and towards his brother and his clerk. It seems considered sufficient to describe these three men entirely by reference to their religion, and somehow all their stereotypic virtues are treated as traits worthy of derision. Their diligence and fastidiousness, and their determination to be reliable, are all mocked, so that the victim's habit of punctuality is described as a 'fetish' rather than as an admirable attribute implying respect for others. We learn of (and are encouraged to be amused by) their enthusiasm for ostentatious displays of wealth, their tendency to be overwhelmed by emotion, and their covetousness with regards to money.

But it is the condescending tone which is most unappealing - the author's unshakeable confidence in his own superiority pervades this book. Yet while he may well have formulated the perfect crime given the medical knowledge of the time, I thought the surrounding story was replete with flaws. I spent the first half of the book wondering why the detectives were having so much difficulty drawing the obvious conclusions from their assembled clues, and the second half thinking the author was trying to be a little too clever: he wanted to both plan the perfect crime and to undermine it so that it could be solved, and to do this he relied upon a series of implausible coincidences.

Despite all these criticisms, I didn't think the story was uninteresting. I found it perplexing and frustrating, and I could never reconcile myself to the author's smugness and anti-Semitism, but his premise was an intriguing one. I remained interested in the story of the murder and the attempts to solve it, though I thought its telling was ruined by the author's intolerance for other people.

[1] The Missing Moneylender, The Ray of Doom & The Harness of Death.
[2] Br. J. Anaesth. (1961) 33 (6):324.
[3] It seems to have been popular as a Penguin as well, as my 1940 copy is from the ninth impression, with the first issued in 1936. (And he may have been in captivity when this wartime copy was issued, as his obituarist further states that he joined the 26th General Hospital R.A.M.C. as anaesthetist in 1939, and spent four and a half years as a prisoner of war in Greece 'practising his anaesthesia under most difficult and primitive conditions, administering a hospital and inspiring his junior colleagues.')
[4] Robert Graves was born the year after Sykes and describes in Goodbye to All That (Penguin no. 1443) how he accepted without question the inferiority of the working classes, only rejecting such ideas as an adult, so this belief may have been perfectly reasonable.


  1. Interesting. I know it's often necessary to make allowances for the time in which a book was written, as often the prejudices reflected there are not ones we find acceptable nowadays. However, this seems to go far beyond what was normal at the time and that kind of anti-Semitism in the 1930s is a little worrying. It's a shame all this ruined what could have been an interesting book!

    1. Prejudice typically doesn't concern me much, but I have no tolerance for sneering, so it was no so much that he chose to make assumptions about groups of people based on a few shared characteristics, but that he judged them automatically as inferior and not worthy of the consideration he would naturally offer to people he recognised as equal to himself. It lacked humanity and it was all so unthinking, as the punctuality example demonstrated - even admirable traits could be twisted into reasons to condemn someone.

      Yet this book was very successful, and I picked it up initially because someone had described it as 'a detective story in a million'. The sneering cannot have concerned people much at the time.

  2. Karyn, it's an interesting subject, the mores of the time. The leftist writers GDH and Margaret Cole condemned antisemtitism yet included some crude Jewish stereotypes in their mysteries. Henry Wade, an English baronet, actually portrays a sympathetic Jewish moneylender in one of his mystery short stories(collected in a Penguin edition), though he does give him the then conventional lisp. But he makes it clear that the murderer (it's an inverted story) benefited from borrowing the moneylender's money and now doesn't find it convenient to pay it back. Usually the fictional moneylender is portrayed as a vicious financial bloodsucker asking to be slain.

    By no means do all English mystery writers of the period employ Jewish stereotypes and in any event there's a drop-off in their use in the 1930s, when events in Germany were making such attitudes more obviously odious even to the more obtuse writers.

    I know what you mean about the sneering aspect. There's a certain social smugness in Sykes that is especially offputting, though it does have a clever plot (you pointed out the offputting elitism too in Cyril Hare's Tragedy at Law, one of PD James' favorite books--a lot of people seem not to notice this even today!).

  3. I've read an article that Sykes wrote as a temporary surgeon sub-lieutenant (in his very early 20s) on a warship during the Great War - it's very witty and amusing, and the joke is occasionally on himself; the version of him that comes out of this description doesn't seem to match. Perhaps he became stodgy and more typical in his middle age... which is a shame.



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