The Perfect Alibi by Christopher St John Sprigg

aka Christopher Caudwell

published 1934

[Sadler, investigating a murder, is questioning the victim’s wife, and has called in her maid]

"The fact is, your mistress and I have had a little argument as to whether my memory is better than hers. It is about the dress she was wearing when this dreadful thing happened to your master. Of course I saw her near the garage, but she tells me that I was wrong in what I thought she was wearing." He leaned forward confidingly. "Now you can imagine that it wouldn't do me any good in my job if it was found I was wrong in my memory of what happened on an important occasion like that, so your mistress has suggested we settle it for good and all. Do you remember what dress she was wearing?"

Simpson's frank face looked pleased. "Of course I can remember. Why, I could lay my hands on it this moment."

"Splendid. Can you bring it here?" In the pause that followed Simpson's departure, Mrs. Mullins looked at him coldly….

Simpson returned with the dress. Laurence took it, looked at it closely, and then returned it with a smile. "I am wrong, I thought the dress she was wearing was—" and he described in his blundering, masculine way the dress Mrs. Mullins wore in the sketch he had just seen in the North Room.

"You certainly are wrong, Mr. Sadler," giggled Simpson. "Madam gave me that dress some time ago. Why, I wore it my evening out just before the fire."

commentary: Clothes detection! Always my favourite thing. Mrs Mullins’ alibi depends on her having been in the studio with an artist at the time of her husband’s death (all too reminiscent of the recently featured Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie) – and now the young investigator has demonstrated that the picture shown as ‘proof’ was actually painted some time earlier.

It’s just a pity that Laurence’s ‘blundering, masculine way’ with clothes is apparently shared by his creator – not the slightest effort to describe either of the dresses.

Clothes feature a lot in the book – the author really should have asked a woman friend to help out if he couldn’t describe them at all. The heroine Sandy Delfinage (great name!) often wears her riding clothes, ‘smartly-cut breeches’, and at one point is hilariously conspicuous while trying to do surveillance in London. And here is the painter of the disputed picture:
The artist looked more unkempt than usual. He was wearing a shapeless tweed jacket and a pair of dingy flannel trousers enlivened here and there by a smear of imperfectly removed paint.
And there is a white science overall, and a vague attempt at a Bohemian party in Bloomsbury.

But apart from that this is a splendid book, with excellent characters, and very funny. It was recommended by my friend John Norris over at Pretty Sinister Books (yes, again - I read a lot of his recos… ) and he does give a very full and helpful rundown of the book, despite his lack of understanding of the role of Marmite in British life.

I have been giving some thought to the question of ‘humdrum’ mysteries, because of my recent panel on the subject at the Bodies From the Library conference. This book by normal standards is definitely humdrum – little-remembered author, a lot of careful detail and painstaking procedure, and above all an important alibi – it’s even called after the alibi.

But humdrum is the last word you would use. The book has great characters and is very funny and clever. There are many great lines:
Morphopoulos… had turned late in life from the business of drug peddling, with its dangers, to the wholly safe business of selling guns.

Dr. Marabout [who believes in witches, vampires and werewolves] was sued for the value of an Alsatian dog, which he had shot dead with sanctified silver bullets under the impression that it was Mrs. Murples. "Had I noticed the animal was not a bitch I should at once have realized my mistake," he explained to the court.

“Officer, you are offensive. You may, if you please, suggest that I am a liar. You may, if you will, accuse me of murderous assault. No one respects the police more than I do. But if you dare to suggest that I, an Overture, who have shot Peppering Coverts for forty years, could miss someone your size with a shotgun at a distance of five yards—then, sir, policeman or no policeman, I have half a mind to give myself the satisfaction of pulling your nose."

This passage may need a gloss…
“God bless my soul!" the chief [constable] said reflectively, "we've strung natives up in bunches for less than that in India. Not, of course, but they've not had the laugh on us once or twice when the real murderer has confessed afterwards. Or would have had the laugh, I should have said; because, of course, they were beyond laughing.”
It is clear in context that this is bitter satire and that the man concerned is plainly an idiot – it may also be relevant that author Sprigg was a Marxist.

There is a lot of business with a surprisingly modern-sounding timeswitch for a light (could this BE a more humdrum alibi detail?), - and people also send out for sandwiches for lunch, and worry about two-hour parking restrictions: exactly the kind of details that people think of as anachronisms.

There is an outrageous will very much like the one in George Eliot’s MiddlemarchAnd many many very funny scenes with distinctive characters, some very interesting comments on male-female relations, as well as an extraordinarily clever plot. The book is an absolute winner, and should be rescued from obscurity.

This author used the pen-name Christopher Caudwell,  and for years I thought he must be related to one of my favourite late 20thC crime writers, Sarah Caudwell, but apparently not.  Christopher St John Sprigg was his real name, and he lived from 1907 to 1937. He wrote a number of books of Marxist philosophy as well as crime fiction, and died fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

John Cornforth died in Spain two months earlier, and his beautiful poem Heart of the Heartless World, is on the blog here .

I love the portraits of William Orpen, so have chosen this picture (actually of Gladys Cooper) from the Athenaeum website.

The jodhpurs picture is from the San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive.

Painter in His Studio is by Thomas P. Anshutz from the Athenaeum website.


  1. Ah, yes, clothes as clues! Little wonder you loved that part of the novel, Moira. And the wit in this one sounds very well done. It sounds as though there's some solid social critique as well as everything else, and I find that interesting, too. Glad you enjoyed this, even if the author didn't get it quite right about some of the clothes...

    1. I'm letting him off because there were so many good things about the book. He really is a lost star of the Golden Age, based on this book.

  2. I'd never even heard of this novel before, but it sounds like one I'd really enjoy. Worth dusting off a copy :-)

    1. Definitely worth a look. You can get it on a Kindle, under the name Sprigg. Someone else had trouble finding it because she was looking for Caudwell!

  3. It sounds an interesting novel. I will have to look for it. The description of the artist sounds rather like some of the characters in D L Sayers novel "Five Red Herrings". Her novels always amuse me by the number items she describes as being in men's pocket. Their jacket pockets must have been bulging.

    1. Yes! I think there was a definite view of artists at that time.
      We have recently been discussing on the blog that we should experiment with whether you can hide a gun under a summer dress. Now i think we could have a matching experiment: how much can men get into their jacket pockets? We can lay out what Sayers claims, and try it out...

  4. The suspect who is insulted at the insinuation that s/he would not have been able to hit a policeman with a shotgun at five yards (it would be pretty difficult to miss anyone at five yards with a shotgun, but I digress) is somewhat reminiscent of that bit from "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty."

    . . . “Perhaps this will refresh your memory.” The District Attorney suddenly thrust a heavy automatic at the quiet figure on the witness stand. “Have you ever seen this before?” Walter Mitty took the gun and examined it expertly. “This is my Webley-Vickers 50.80,” he said calmly. An excited buzz ran around the courtroom. The Judge rapped for order. “You are a crack shot with any sort of firearms, I believe?” said the District Attorney, insinuatingly. “Objection!” shouted Mitty’s attorney. “We have shown that the defendant could not have fired the shot. We have shown that he wore his right arm in a sling on the night of the fourteenth of July.” Walter Mitty raised his hand briefly and the bickering attorneys were stilled. “With any known make of gun,” he said evenly, “I could have killed Gregory Fitzhurst at three hundred feet with my left hand.” Pandemonium broke loose in the courtroom. A woman’s scream rose above the bedlam and suddenly a lovely, dark-haired girl was in Walter Mitty’s arms. The District Attorney struck at her savagely. Without rising from his chair, Mitty let the man have it on the point of the chin. “You miserable cur!” . . .

    1. Oh how splendid. 'Perhaps this will refresh your memory' is also the caption of one of James Thurber's best cartoons - perhaps it is one of those phrases that is always funny. I haven't ready Walter Mitty: obviously I must.
      My favourite line of Thurber is one he wrote 'after reading too many southern gothic novels':

      Old Nate Birge… was chewing on a splinter of wood and watching the moon come up lazily out of the old cemetery in which nine of his daughters were lying, only two of whom were dead.

  5. Sarah Caudwell was the daughter of Claud Cockburn and Jean Ross (the original of Isherwood's Sally Bowles and a real-life femme fatale herself), who were both members of the Communist Party and knew Caudwell/St. John Sprigge, so the name may have been a homage on her part.

    1. according to the DNB Sarah Caudwell great-grandfather was a landowner and industrialist Charles Caudwell Presumably she. adopted her nom-de-guerre from him. Perhaps St. John Sprigge did something similar and they were more distantly related.

    2. Interesting, thanks for the extra details. I would love to be sure there was a connection...

  6. I could have sworn I had purchased one of this author's books, one put out by the British Library Crime Classics Library but maybe not. I will be looking out for his books, This one sounds good.

    1. "I could have sworn I had purchased one of this author's books, one put out by the British Library Crime Classics Library but maybe not."

      That would be DEATH OF AN AIRMAN. Which I've just read and it's great fun. I think you'd like it.

    2. I never fancied it before - ways to kill someone on an aeroplane? - but now that I've read this one I'm definitely up for trying it.

  7. Unsurprisingly a pass from me.


Post a Comment