Sir Basil Thomson’s Richardson series

The stranger-than-fiction life of Sir Basil Home Thomson (1861-1938) was packed so full of incident that one can understand why his work as a crime novelist has been rather overlooked. This was a man whose CV included spells as a colonial administrator, prison governor, intelligence officer, and Assistant Commissioner at Scotland Yard. Among much else, he worked alongside the Prime Minister of Tonga (according to some accounts, he was the Prime Minister of Tonga), interrogated Mata Hari and Roger Casement (although not at the same time), and was sensationally convicted of an offence of indecency committed in Hyde Park. More than three-quarters of a century after his death, his contribution he made to developing the police procedural deserves to be recognised. And thanks to the enterprise of Dean Street Press, which is reprinting the eight books in Thomson’s Richardson series, that recognition should soon be widespread.

Thomson’s father became Archbishop of York in 1862, and the young Thomson (one of no fewer than nine siblings) was educated at Eton before going up to New College. He left Oxford after a couple of terms, apparently as a result of suffering depression, and joined the Colonial Service. Assigned to Fiji, he became a stipendiary magistrate before moving to Tonga. Returning to England in 1893, he published South Sea Yarns, which is among the 22 books written by him which are listed in Allen J. Hubin’s comprehensive bibliography of crime fiction (although in the case of some of Thomson’s books recorded in Hubin, the criminous content appears to have been limited).

Thomson was called to the Bar, but – like a key character in A Murder Arranged – opted not to practise as a barrister. Instead, he became deputy governor of Liverpool Prison; later, he served as governor of such prisons as Dartmoor and Wormwood Scrubs, and acted as secretary to the Prison Commission. In 1913, he became head of C.I.D., which acted as the enforcement arm of British military intelligence after war broke out. When the Dutch exotic dancer and alleged spy Mata Hari arrived in England in 1916, she was arrested and interviewed at length by Thomson at Scotland Yard; she was released, only to be shot the following year by a French firing squad. He gave an account of the interrogation in Queer People (1922).

Thomson was knighted, and given the additional responsibility of acting as Director of Intelligence at the Home Office, but in 1921, he was controversially ousted, prompting a heated debate in Parliament: according to The Times, “for a few minutes there was pandemonium”. The government argued that Thomson was at odds with the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Sir William Horwood (whose own career ended with an ignominious departure from office seven years later), but it seems likely that covert political machinations lay behind his removal. With many aspects of Thomson’s complex life, it is hard to disentangle fiction from fact.

Undaunted, Thomson resumed his writing career, and in 1925, he published Mr Pepper Investigates, a collection of humorous short mysteries, the most notable of which is “The Vanishing of Mrs Fraser”; this entertaining story, based on a famous urban legend, was anthologised by Dorothy L. Sayers (and, more recently, by me in last year’s Resorting to Murder). In the same year, disaster struck as Thomson was arrested in Hyde Park for “committing an act in violation of public decency” with a young woman – evidently a prostitute – who gave her name, rather implausibly, as Thelma de Lava. Thomson protested his innocence, but in vain: his trial took place amid a blaze of publicity, and he was fined five pounds. Despite the fact that Thelma had pleaded guilty (her fine was reportedly paid by a photographer), Thomson launched an appeal, claiming that he was the victim of a conspiracy, but the court would have none of it. Was he framed, or the victim of entrapment? If so, was the reason connected with his past work in intelligence or crime solving? The answers remain uncertain, but Thomson’s equivocal responses to the police after being apprehended caused grave damage to his credibility.

Public humiliation of this kind would have broken a less formidable man, but Thomson, by now in his mid-sixties, proved astonishingly resilient. A couple of years after his trial, he was appointed to reorganise the Siamese police force, and he continued to produce novels. These included The Kidnapper (1933), which Sayers described in a review for the Sunday Times as “not so much a detective story as a sprightly fantasia upon a detective theme.” She approved the fact that Thomson wrote “good English very amusingly”, and noted that “some of his characters have real charm.” Mr Pepper returned as a relatively minor character in The Kidnapper, but in the same year, Thomson introduced his most important character, a Scottish policeman called Richardson.

Thomson took advantage of his inside knowledge to portray a young detective climbing through the ranks at Scotland Yard. And Richardson’s rise is amazingly rapid: thanks to the fastest fast-tracking imaginable, he starts out as a police constable, and has become Chief Constable by the time of his seventh appearance – in a book published only four years after the first. This reverses the usual pattern, in which authors write about a popular series character (Poirot, Miss Marple, Ellery Queen, Perry Mason, Adam Dalgliesh and Reg Wexford are among many examples which spring to mind) for much longer than the span of a typical investigative career in real life.

Richardson is, to some extent, a cipher. We are never told much about his personal life, although it appears that he comes of Scottish farming stock. He is likeable as well as highly efficient, and his sixth case introduces him to his future wife. But there is no drawn-out pursuit and conquest in the manner of Wimsey and Harriet Vane, far less any soppy indulgence in romance. Once we are told about the couple’s marriage, Mrs Richardson vanishes from sight.

Her husband’s inquiries take him – and other colleagues – to different parts of England, and he ventures across the Channel on more than one occasion: in The Case of the Dead Diplomat (a list of the titles and variant titles in the series appears below),all the action takes place in France. There is a zest about the stories, especially when compared with some of the crime novels being produced at around the same time, which is striking, especially given that all of them were written by a man in his seventies.

From the start of the series, Thomson takes care to show the team work necessitated by a criminal investigation. Richardson is a key connecting figure, but the importance of his colleagues’ efforts is never minimised in order to highlight his brilliance. In The Case of the Dead Diplomat, for instance, it is the trusty Sergeant Cooper who makes good use of his linguistic skills and flair for impersonation to trap the villains of the piece. Inspector Vincent takes centre stage in The Milliner’s Hat Mystery, with Richardson confined to the background. He is more prominent in A Murder Arranged, but it is Inspector Dallas who does most of the leg-work, sending in regular reports for Richardson to study.

Such a focus on police team-working is very familiar to present day crime fiction fans, but it was something fresh in the Thirties. Yet Thomson was not the first man with personal experience of police life to write crime fiction: Frank Froest, a legendary detective, made a considerable splash with his first novel, The Grell Mystery, published in 1913. Froest, though, was a career cop, schooled in “the university of life” without the benefit of higher education, who sought literary input from a journalist, George Dilnot, whereas Basil Thomson was a fluent and experienced writer whose light, brisk style is ideally suited to detective fiction, with its emphasis on entertainment. Like so many other detective novelists, his interest in “true crime” is occasionally apparent in his fiction, but although Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? opens with a murder scenario faintly reminiscent of the legendary Wallace case of 1930, the storyline soon veers off in a quite different direction.

Even before Richardson arrived on the scene, two accomplished detective novelists had created successful police series. Freeman Wills Crofts devised elaborate crimes (often involving ingenious alibis) for Inspector French to solve, and his books highlight the patience and meticulous work of the skilled police investigator. Henry Wade wrote increasingly ambitious novels, often featuring the Oxford-educated Inspector Poole, and exploring the tensions between police colleagues as well as their shared values. Thomson’s mysteries are less convoluted than Crofts’, and less sophisticated than Wade’s, but they make pleasant reading. This is, at least in part, thanks to little touches of detail that are unquestionably authentic – such as senior officers’ dread of newspaper criticism, as in The Dartmoor Enigma. No other crime writer, after all, has ever had such wide-ranging personal experience of prison management, intelligence work, the hierarchies of Scotland Yard, let alone a desperate personal fight, under the unforgiving glare of the media spotlight, to prove his innocence of a criminal charge sure to stain, if not destroy, his reputation.

Ingenuity was the hallmark of many of the finest detective novels written during “the Golden Age of murder” between the wars, and intricacy of plotting – at least judged by the standards of Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, and John Dickson Carr – was not Thomson’s speciality. That said, The Milliner’s Hat Mystery is remarkable for having inspired Ian Fleming, while he was working in intelligence during the Second World War, after Thomson’s death. In a memo to Rear Admiral John Godfrey, Fleming said: “The following suggestion is used in a book by Basil Thomson: a corpse dressed as an airman, with despatches in his pockets, could be dropped on the coast, supposedly from a parachute that has failed. I understand there is no difficulty in obtaining corpses at the Naval Hospital, but, of course, it would have to be a fresh one.” This clever idea became the basis for “Operation Mincemeat”, a plan to conceal the invasion of Italy from North Africa.

A further intriguing connection between Thomson and Fleming is that Thomson inscribed copies of at least two of the Richardson books to Kathleen Pettigrew, who was personal assistant to the Director of MI6, Stewart Menzies. She is widely regarded as the woman on whom Fleming based Miss Moneypenny, secretary to James Bond’s boss M – the Moneypenny character was originally called “Petty” Petteval. Possibly it was through her that Fleming came across Thomson’s book.

Thomson’s work is not explored in the early genre histories, Howard Haycraft’s generally excellent Murder for Pleasure, or A.E. Murch’s sound if low-key The Development of the Detective Novel, let alone in Julian Symons’ masterly but (necessarily) very selective Bloody Murder. Nor, more surprisingly, did the Richardson books earn a single mention in George N. Dove’s 1982 study of The Police Procedural (1982), which reflects the neglect into which his work fell after his death. On the infrequent occasions when leading critics have considered his work, however, they have tended to be positive.

Thus, Thomson’s writing was of sufficiently high calibre to prompt Dorothy L. Sayers to heap praise on Richardson’s performance in his third case: “he puts in some of that excellent, sober, straightforward detective work which he so well knows how to do and follows the clue of a post-mark to the heart of a very plausible and proper mystery. I find him a most agreeable companion.” Those stern American critics Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor also had a soft spot for Richardson, saying in A Catalogue of Crime that his investigations amount to “early police routine minus the contrived bickering, stomach ulcers, and pub-crawling with which later writers have masked poverty of invention and the dullness of repetitive questioning”. E.F. Bleiler, writing in Twentieth Century Crime and Mystery Writers, said that “the Richardson novels are well-written and imaginative, with a wealth of detail about police operations”

Until recently, however, it has been extremely difficult for modern readers to judge for themselves, as the Richardson series has been out of print and hard to find for decades. Thankfully, we live at a time when scores of long-forgotten books are being made available again at affordable prices, something that we could only have dreamed of during the first twenty years of the existence of CADS. Dean Street Press has republished all eight recorded entries in the Richardson case-book, and I have written a general introduction to the series; this article is a revised and expanded version of that introduction. My guess is that plenty of twenty-first century readers will find Richardson’s company just as agreeable as Sayers did.

The Richardson books (the first title given is that of the 2016 Dean Street Press edition)

  • Richardson’s First Case (1933) – originally PC Richardson’s First Case 
  • Richardson Scores Again (1934) – retitled Richardson’s Second Case in the US
  • The Case of Naomi Clynes (1934) – originally Inspector Richardson CID, retitled The Case of Naomi Clynes in the US
  • The Case of the Dead Diplomat (1935) – originally Richardson Goes Abroad, retitled The Case of the Dead Diplomat in the US
  • The Dartmoor Enigma (1935) – originally Richardson Solves a Dartmoor Mystery, retitled The Dartmoor Enigma in the US
  • Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? (1936) – originally Death in the Bathroom, retitled Who Killed Stella Pomeroy? in the US
  • The Milliner’s Hat Mystery (1937) – originally Milliner’s Hat Mystery, retitled The Mystery of the French Milliner in the US
  • A Murder Arranged (1937) – retitled When Thieves Fall Out in the US

(This article previously appeared in CADS)