On a recent training programme in English Cataloguing we have been asking staff about some of their favourite things in the Library. In collections as rich as the Library’s this can be a very difficult question to answer, with many of us having long lists of items, but close to the top of my list are five publications by the same author and held in the Library’s twentieth century secondary collection. All five books are works of fiction, published between 1929 and 1932 and as such are stored, with their dust jackets intact, up in the Library tower.
So, what is it about these books that interest me so much? Well, they are special to me because they bridge several areas of interest in my life: the Cambridgeshire Regiment, researching First World War gallantry medals and enjoying reading detective fiction.
For almost twenty years now I have been researching the history and men of the Cambridgeshire Regiment. Unusually, it was a purely territorial unit, never having a regular battalion, but served with distinction in both world wars. On the Western Front from early 1915 to April 1919 earning over 250 awards for gallantry, and then in Singapore in 1942; the 1st Battalion was reputed to have been the last unit of the allied forces to surrender to the Japanese, but both battalions were captured and endured the harsh captivity and worked on the infamous railways.
But where do these five detective novels fit in? In 1915 the majority of the men serving in the Cambridgeshires were from the county of Cambridgeshire, with one whole Company coming from Cambridge University Press, and a large proportion of the officers were University men; either current students or graduates who subsequently lived locally.
Basil Godfrey Quin, from Newcastle, was an undergraduate at St John’s College; he had just completed his first year of the mathematical tripos, and gained a first. His studies were then interrupted, his country needed him, and he volunteered for service and gained a commission in the Cambridgeshire Regiment. After training, he joined the 1st Battalion on the Western Front in Ypres on July 11, 1917 and only three weeks before the Battalion took part in the Battle of St Julien on 31 July. Coming through this immense trial unscathed he was then involved in the Battalion’s attack, eight weeks later, on a feature known as Tower Hamlets Ridge, on 26 September. Quin distinguished himself during the battle by his gallantry, and was decorated with the Military Cross as a result. It is awe inspiring to think that he had only been in theatre for eleven weeks at this point. His citation was published in the London Gazette in April 1918:
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty. He carried a report over a fire swept zone to battalion headquarters and returned to his company through an intense hostile barrage. Later, he twice went to the battalion on his right, under a heavy bombardment, to ascertain the situation. By his example he inspired all ranks with confidence.
Despite being a war hero, Quin was an unassuming man; he opted to receive his Military Cross in the post rather than at a royal investiture and, although he attended Old Comrades events in the post-war years, he never wore his MC or campaign medals; they remain in their boxes of issue. That’s not to say he wasn’t proud of his war service and it’s in his writing that it’s really seen. After the War Quin became the mathematics master at Rutherford College for Boys, in Newcastle, and three years later became the senior mathematics master, a post he would hold until his retirement in 1951. During this time he was also a keen writer and in 1929 Hutchinson of London published his first work of fiction: The death box (UL: 1929.7.2987), then four further novels followed: Mystery of the black gate (UL: 1930.7.1043), The murder rehearsal (UL: 1931.7.1179), Mistigris (UL: 1932.7.65) and The phantom murderer (UL: 1932.7.1792). There are two main characters, the flamboyant and omniscient Clarkson Parry, and his trusty sidekick Harvey, who is also the narrator. Both are old soldiers, having served together on the Western Front, and after meeting again during the late 1920s come together to solve a series of murders, robberies and blackmails by extraordinary means of deduction. Despite regularly coming into the line of fire them-selves, they still manage to maintain a stiff upper lip and a sense of decorum as befits the era. Although Harvey’s character is somewhat diffident, he derives immense confidence from his time in the trenches and this manifests itself with descriptive comparisons to his wartime experiences. Knowing the author was really there somehow makes these reminiscences more powerful – at least to me, anyway, and I can’t imagine a modern author managing it in the same way.
Having researched Quin and read his work over a number of years I concluded that Harvey’s character was probably semiautobiographical and it was fascinating to have this confirmed through correspondence with his two daughters. It was said that Clarkson Parry was the man he would have liked to be, but Harvey was the man he thought he was, though this is by no means a bad thing in my mind.
Since first reading them, I have tried to acquire my own copies of the Hutchinson editions but with no success, only an economy reprint of The death box is abundant. Having agreed with various booksellers up and down the country that they are not rare and shouldn’t be expensive they nonetheless, remain elusive. Therefore I can attest to the immense value of Legal Deposit, which has ensured that there are at least six sets of Quin’s novels spread across the UK and Ireland, in the Legal Deposit Libraries, for the modern reader to enjoy.
In September and October 2017, to coincide with the centenary of the Battle of Tower Hamlets Ridge, when Quin won his MC, a small exhibition about him and his works will be held in the Entrance Hall display cases.