Beginning with a Bash (1935) by Alice Tilton

Review by Kathryn Rangeley: Like another member of the group, I chose to find a book by a woman in the hope that I might get the ‘hard-boiled’, tough aspect of the story without too much gratuitous violence and misogyny’. I found what I hoped would be exactly the right novel at the Pier Bookshop in Morecambe, Lancashire, a shop I mention at every opportunity.

The novel was re-published as part of Collins Crime Club Disappearing Detectives (1985) with an Introduction by HRF Keating.

It did turn out to have very little misogyny and violence; it did have some of the features of hard-boiled fiction including short sentences, gang rivalry, a shoot-out and a gangster’s moll. At no point is anyone in danger, but the author uses the elements of gangster fiction to complete the story.

There was however enough racist language to spoil the book for me even though this was limited to one page. I will highlight this later in my report.

The author of the novel is Alice Tilton, pseudonym of Phoebe Atwood Taylor.

She wrote eight books as Alice Tilton about the detective Leonides Witherall, who resembles William Shakespeare, therefore is often called Bill.

We learn early on that Bill has been a teacher in a prestigious Boston academy, has inherited money, retired from teaching, travelled extensively and spent all his money, so is back in Boston working as a janitor in a bookshop which has just been inherited by his friend Dot Peters from her uncle.

The book opens with Bill helping Dot to organise the contents of the bookshop. In bursts a young man who is fleeing from the police.

The sentences are short, using the style of hard-boiled fiction

The police could afford to play cat and mouse with him as long as they wanted. They had him. They had him col. They knew they had him, and they know he knew.

The young man, Martin Jones, is on the run from the police because he is accused of stealing some valuable bonds from the museum he works in. He says he is innocent. A diversion is created by a traffic collision which takes place in the street outside. The confusion caused by the accident involving sirens, ambulances and the like provides a diversion during which a man is murdered by being bashed over the head – the ‘bash’ of the title. The dead man is Professor North, the owner of the bonds.

As well as our young fugitive other customers include a woman referred to as a dowager and a clergyman.

The rest of the book involves Bill, Dot and the dowager, a Boston bigwig, Mrs Jordan, trying to find the person who stole the bonds as well as the murderer.

They start by visiting the Professor’s home and meeting his housekeeper, Gertie Mcinness who joins them on their search for the bonds and the Dr Langley, the woman they suspect of stealing the bonds and murdering Professor North,

Gertie is the girlfriend of Freddy Solano, a gangster of Italian descent and sister of head of a rival gang, of Irish descent, Bat McInness.

Bill, Dot, Mrs Jordan, Gertie, Freddy and his gang all then set of in pursuit of Dr Langley. The chase ends on the coast near Boston where they find Doctor Langford digging up the bonds and attempting to shoot her pursuers.

I was so disappointed that half way through the book, Gertie describes Dr Langford’s work as an anthropologist using the racist language to which I alluded at the start of the review. Dr Langford’s work has taken her to some isolated communities to study their behaviour and customs. Gertie is explaining this to the rest of the group by using the ‘n’ word at least five times in one page. I suspect that the author was attempting to show that Gertie had no knowledge of anthropology, but even attempting to understand the reasons for the language didn’t make me feel any more comfortable.

I think what I found even more disappointing was that HRF Keating writing the introduction in 1987 had not seen fit to acknowledge the use of this language even if he were only to have said ‘it was of its time’.

Unfortunately, what could have been a good read, with lively interesting women playing important roles in the story, was spoiled for me by the one paragraph.

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