Initially, L. J. Hurst worked in the backrooms of the media industry. He now divides his time between work for an international scientific publisher and a rather more British independent bookseller. In years past he was a regular attendee at the Shots on the Page Festivals from whence Shots Mag sprung
Classic crime fans have had to wait two years, but Forbes Gibb's Lomax Press have now produced their second R T Campbell title. Campbell was the pseudonym of the poet Ruthven Todd, who wrote a series of detective novels in the years following the end of World War II. Lomax's first re-issue, Take Thee A Sharp Knife (reviewed by Shots at the time) was, admittedly with difficulty, available to find, but I have never seen a copy of the The Death Cap before so this arrival was a delight. Even better, Lomax have kept up their publishing standards, this is a limited edition hardback with another superb cover illustration from Rebecca Green (a theatrical floozy dying, portrayed in the style of Edward Ardizzone, watched by a household of suspects).
Campbell/Todd was one of those poets of the time who was also something of a scientific expert (W H Auden was another: his speciality was geology) and Peter Main's introduction explains Campbell's knowledge of fungi, edible and poisonous; suspect and innocent looking. In fact, the book comes with a tipped-in colour frontispiece, a reproduction of mushrooms from the author's diary, showing close detail. For the death cap of the title is a death cap mushroom – the death cap of the judge passing sentence which ultimately must follow the denouement of Professor John Stubbs, Campbell's detective, happens off-stage.
Max Boyle, Dr Stubbs' amanuensis and gofer, finds himself at a house-party at which a death will take place. The end of the war has put a lot of pressure on accommodation and this house has turned into a house of multi-occupation (though they were not that rare even before the war if you trust the evidence of a novel such as E C R Lorac's Slippery Staircase, and continued afterwards – see Colin Wilson's Adrift In Soho for a later, autobiographical example). The residents are the usual group of people you would expect to find: actors resting, artists, struggling journalists and general parasites. There is not a lot of money to go around (though the drinks bills must be enormous, and not just for Dr Stubbs who drinks like a fish), food is still on short rations, and so a meal of mushrooms on toast to end the party – when the mushrooms had been gathered in the field while the actors were at a provincial theatre and hence free to forage – would a be perfect conclusion.
The death that follows is not natural, of course, though the police are at first tempted to regard it as accidental. Dr Stubbs, however, to whom Max reports back, is a botanist and knows that something is wrong. Worse still, the mushroom collectors had had their Penguin guides to fungi with them – how or why should they have made a mistake? Or was there something in the second punnet of mushrooms, bought in the city and available in the kitchen to be tipped into the frying pan? Or was there, even, a poison added to the innocent fungi somewhere between the basement kitchen and the party floor?
Stubbs is one of those detectives whose suggestions to senior police officers are treated as instructions, but that does not stop Stubbs himself sending Max out on missions while driving himself madly about the streets of London. Using Forbes Gibbs' footnotes readers can follow these journeys on a map, and they could locate the scientific volumes which the mushroom collectors, innocent and less-knowing, have used in their collecting, but readers will wonder what Stubbs is up to when he offers a roomful of suspects two plates of their favourite dish even while he announces that one dish is poisoned.
As with their first Campbell volume, Lomax have published The Death Cap in a limited edition of 300 copies. I have one and Martin Edwards has another, if you delay there could be none left. Then study the characters, read all the way through and try to decide if Professor Stubbs is as exasperating as Max Boyle thinks him, or whether Stubbs is not, in the end, a real fun guy.
(Introduction by Peter Main, annotations by Forbes Gibb)