TURN OF THE TABLE (1940) by Jonathan Stagge

“My name is Westlake, not Watson.”

‘Jonathan Stagge’ was the last of the three pseudonyms used by the writing partnership of Richard Wilson Webb and Hugh Wheeler between 1936 and 1952 and is much less well-known than their other collaboration published as by ‘Patrick Quentin’ and ‘Q. Patrick’. Replete with their trademark emphasis on recognisable and psychologically well-rounded characters and above-average whodunit puzzles, they are however much heavier on atmosphere than some of the other Webb and Wheeler collaborations and are much closer to the works of John Dickson Carr. This is particularly well in evidence in Turn of the Table (which was also published as Funeral for Five) which features seances and the hunt for a moonlight killer that may be a vampire.

As the book came out before 1960, this review is also eligible under the guidelines of Bev’s 2011 Mystery Readers Challenge

Most of the Stagge cases originally appeared with different titles depending on whether they were published in the US or the UK – here is a complete list, with the first publication title followed by its subsequent variant one:

  1. Murder Gone to Earth (aka The Dogs Do Bark) – 1936
  2. Murder or Mercy? (aka Murder by Prescription) – 1937
  3. The Stars Spell Death (aka Murder in the Stars)  – 1939
  4. Turn of the Table (aka Funeral for Five) – 1940
  5. The Yellow Taxi (aka Call a Hearse) – 1942
  6. The Scarlet Circle (aka Light from a Lantern) – 1943
  7. Death, My Darling Daughters (aka Death and the Dear Girls) – 1945
  8. Death’s Old Sweet Song – 1946
  9. The Three Fears – 1949

The protagonist of this series is small town doctor Hugh Cavendish Westlake (a name presumably patterned after that of co-author Hugh Callingham Wheeler). He is based in Kenmore and considers himself to be anything but an amateur sleuth – he just happens to get involved in murder cases, which he usually helps to solve through his friendship (he delivered all five of his children) with Inspector Cobb, the chief of Police in the nearby Grovestown, where Westlake made a home until the death of his wife. The widower lives with his young daughter Dawn, who was 10 years old in the series debut novel (Dogs Do Bark) and is twelve in this book, which was first published in 1940.

Westlake is spending the Summer in Grovestown as a locum for the holidaying Doctor Hammond and has taken on his upper crust patients, none more prominent than the family of wealthy banker Bruce Banner, who happens to live next door. Banner, who suffers badly from angina, has recently re-married following a long and difficult marriage to Grace, a manic-depressive who committed suicide two years ago while on a cruise in Canada. Bruce is now happily married to Sheila, who is in her early forties and with whom he is expecting a child. Between them they already have three children from their previous marriages, all of whom are currently staying with them: Linette and Oliver from Sheila’s, and Greg, from Bruce’s. Theirs is an apparently idyllic and happy life, until the arrival from Vancouver of Eleanor Frame, a relative of Banner’s first wife. Along with being a constant reminder of Banner’s unhappy first marriage, she is also a spiritualist and Banner quickly seems to come under her spell, much to the disgust of the rest of the family who resent her growing influence and the messages from Grace that she is apparently bringing back from the ‘other side’.

Sheila and Linette both come to visit Westlake to invite him to dinner, concerned that Eleanor is aggravating Bruce’s condition and hoping that he might be able to hep get ride of her. That evening the entire family is there in addition to Sarah Deane, Bruce’s mother and a once famous actress, Sheila’s brother Trimble Comstock, who is also the family’s lawyer, and David Handley, an executive in Bruce’s company who is courting Linette, a gifted singer. That evening Westlake immediately sees how toxic the atmosphere has become under Eleanor’s malign influence as she insists that they hold a séance despite Bruce’s increasing ill-health. With their hands touching round a heavy table and with all the lights switched off, a message promptly arrives from ‘Grace’ presaging Bruce’s death – and almost at that exact moment he apparently has an attack. Westlake gives him the
nitroglycerine capsules that Bruce always carried with him but his condition worsens – despite further attempts to save him he dies. Westlake calls in his friend Cobb, suspecting that the capsules he administered had been interfered with. When he looks for the original tube of tablets, which rolled under a table in the confusion, he is unable to find them but they are later mysteriously found in Bruce’s pocket.

One of the notable aspects of the novel, typical of Wheeler and Webb’s books, is the extent to which the main character becomes personally involved in the case – here Westlake is deeply concerned that he will be blamed if it does turn out that he was the one who gave the wrong pills to Bruce, which Cobb exploits to use the Doctor as his ‘inside man’ within the tight-knit Banner clan. When the pills are examined Westlke is told that they are normal, but Eleanor arrives at the surgery the next day claiming that she has the tube that contained the actual pills that Bruce was given. When these are checked by Cobb, it is determined that these in fact contained poison from the lab where Greg is currently studying, pills that the previous Autumn Oliver had stolen and attempted to commit suicide with. Eleanor tries to blackmail Westlake into taking her on as a nurse now that the Bannisters are kicking her out and she wants to remain nearby. Westlake is so infuriated that he slaps her, but Dawn suddenly returns from her camping holiday after hearing about the murder and takes a shine to the reptilian woman. The sense that Westlake is being pushed and also sucked into investigating the case is very well rendered, making him much more human than the average sleuth. Cobb gets Westlake to keep Eleanor on as his nurse and turns him into a spy and unwilling detective as he has the confidence of the family. There will be several deaths to follow (including the family dog, polished off seemingly by Eleanor to check if Bruce’s pills were poisoned or not) in quick successions before everything is cleared up.

There are some fairly contrived and melodramatic elements to the second half of the novel which can make it seemed a bit rushed as Westlake constantly goes to a from the Banner residence and back to his own again – in fact this part of the story takes place in just a few hours. But there is also a fine spooky atmosphere as there is another séance that succeeds beyond even Eleanor’s hopes and really does seem to raise Grace’s spectre from the dead, while Westlake himself is attached by the ‘vampire’ before a body is found in the swimming pool. Two-thirds of the way through there is a major twist that changes the entire plot, leading to a long and convoluted explanation of the case but, in the style of Ellery Queen, this proves only to be a false solution to be replaced by a simpler, darker and more satisfying explanation.

This is a novel that isn’t particularly easy to find but it’s a great introduction to the Stagge series that deserves to be better known.

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

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11 Responses to TURN OF THE TABLE (1940) by Jonathan Stagge

  1. Yvette says:

    Okay, these really sounds like my kind of books. I’m definitely going to look for TURN OF THE TABLE and then we’ll take it from there. Oh my aching TBR list!

    • Hi Yvette, I really hope you can get your hands on some of the ‘Stagge’ books as I’d love to know what you make of them. I’m going to see about reviewing a few more (making allowances for my own bulging TBR pile of course …).

  2. TomCat says:

    The only Webb and Wheeler collaboration I have read, signed as Jonathan Stagge, was Death’s Old Sweet Song, in which a small-town serial killer knocks-off the residents at the tune of nursery rhymes and recalled Ellery Queen’s Double, Double. But the plot wasn’t particular ingenious or groundbreaking nor was it possessive of a Carrian, spellbinding atmosphere. So are there any of the Dr. Westlake mysteries that come close to matching their other masterpieces such as Death and the Maiden and Black Widow?

    And where’d you find that Dutch cover? *intrigued*

    • Hello TomCat, thanks for the comments. DEATH’S OLD SWEET SONG and DEATH MY DARLING DAUGHTERS, two of the three final books in the series, seem to be the two titles that seem to be easiest to find while others are much tougher to get hold of. I originally read the books over a quarter of a century ago in Italy and while on my hols found my copy of TURN OF THE TABLE (FUNERAL FOR FIVE) and couldn’t resist as it was the same copy I first read in 1983!

      You can find the Dutch cover from several places, the largest though is here: (http://28.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_kxcm33VTOc1qz5q5oo1_r1_500.jpg). I would recommend starting with the earlier ones like DOGS DO BARK for the more richly atmospheric titles.

      I plan to review a few more Stagge, Q. Patrick and Quentin titles, especially THE MAN WITH TWO WIVES which Wheeler wrote solo.

  3. TomCat says:

    Thanks for the tip, and I will probably chuck one of those early Jonathan Stagge novels in my digital shopping cart next time I place an order. The team behind these pseudonyms were an amazing collection of writers and grossly underrated these days. Although the last book I read by them, Murder at Cambridge, turned out to be one of the biggest disappointments of the year! Oh well, everyone has their off-days.

  4. John says:

    Wow, what a gorgeous Belarski cover! I’ve never seen that book. I want one now! (Oh, this pathetic madness that has enslaved me.) As a matter of fact I don’t think I’ve seen *any* copies of TURN OF THE TABLE. And here I always thought that most difficult title to find (i’m talking about the hardcover 1st edition) was THE STARS SPELL DEATH which I managed to snag in an eBay auction sometime last year. It’s been stuck it in a pile of Stagge books I’ve been meaning to review for my series on Neglected Detectives. Figures someone would beat me to it. [grumble, grumble] And nicely done as usual.

    • Hello John, thanks for the kind words as always. I wish I could claim it was the cover for the edition I have at home, but that would be a lie … But it has sentimental value for me (my first book by the Wilson and Webb team) so I shall not grumble too much. And as you say, at least I managed to get a copy. I honestly had no idea that some of the Stagge titles were so hard to get – I guess they didn’t get reprinted too often – what a shame!

  5. Like TomCat, the only Stagge novel I’ve read is Death’s Old Sweet Song (in fact I reviewed it last spring (2010) when I was taking my first baby steps in the blogging/reviewing world). It wasn’t spellbinding, but I did enjoy it and am glad to see your review of Turn of the Table. I certainly plan to keep my eye out for more.

    • Hello Bev, from my dim and distant reading of the series in the early 80s, all in Italian translation I might add, I got the impression that the volumes written before war in the US broke out were the more notable ones. I now want to re-read them in English but I gave up on finding TURN OF THE TABLE at a reasonable price ages ago – I hope you have better luck than I have on that score.

  6. Pingback: Partners in Crime | Tipping My Fedora

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