John Ferguson’s Death of Mr. Dodsley, a London Bibliomystery, is the latest in the British Library Crime Classics series. A relatively forgotten figure in mystery fiction, Ferguson produced just under a half dozen books featuring crime reporter Francis McNab and some other characters. This book was the last featuring McNab. Fortunately a very nice introduction helps to make clear the context of this book, both in the author’s life and within the mystery genre as a whole.
Quite early on one officer’s attempt to reason out the testimony of a drunk man is a brilliant example of detective writing in itself. It is brief, and forwards the plot. More important than that, however, the piece gives a perfectly reasonable example of reasoning logically based on experience and various types of evidence.
One interesting element of this book is the way it has moments presaging a hobby mystery. To be particular there are scenes of the investigating officers educating others involved about the value of old books, compared to the newer ones. While this is an element of most biblio mysteries in general, the comparisons to someone educating others about vinyl or home renovation or any other topic in more recent books is hard to deny.
By the same token, throughout the book there are mentions of a novel written by a certain Miss Grafton ,which is a mystery. Critique of mystery novels is scattered throughout the book in a nice almost meta fictional way, which again reminds readers of just how developed the genre had become even when this book was first published in 1937.
As an example on page 199 officer McNabb responds to someone offering to “play Watson to you all right” by saying “Wasn’t Watson rather a fool?” While this isn’t exactly true to the original books, he was certainly less clever than Holmes and to a certain degree an pop culture image of him as comparatively dim had already appeared. This still is the distinctive oddity to see this about the character prior to Nigel Bruce having a turn at the role, however, for those who believe he is primarily responsible for that image.
The mystery itself holds up rather nicely, and as a dedicatory note from the author implies is an attempt at a fairly down to earth investigation. At the same time the broad look at humanity it provides is entertaining, ranging from the loved ones of political figures down to those working day to day. For someone who is not a bibliophile the volume might be a harder read, however, as early discussions and theming continue throughout the book.
For those who are not massive bibliophiles, this is probably not the first volume by John Ferguson to read. For those looking for a biblio mystery, it would be an exceptional fit.
(British Library Publishing 2023)