Reprint of the Year: At the Sign of the Clove and Hoof by Zoe Johnson

The big event of the year is back! It’s the Reprint of the Year contest, as run by our own Golden Age Queen & Social Secretary Kate Jackson. ‘In a nutshell, participating bloggers have to nominate two classic crime/mystery titles which have been reprinted this year as an ebook, physical book or audio book.’ Then everybody votes, and Kate announces the results. 

For more on all this see her blog at Cross-Examining Crime.


And here is my first choice:


At the Sign of the Clove and Hoof by Zoe Johnson

published 1937

I would say this is a pretty obscure title, and obscure author, and I had never heard of either till I saw I it in Kate's helpful list of reprints. At least that’s what I thought – in fact I must have read about it on Pretty Sinister Books, John Norris’s blog, source of so many obscure books and great finds. He did a post on this book back in 2021

Pretty Sinister Books: FFB: At the Sign of the Clove & Hoof - Zoë Johnson

It has been reprinted this year, and is definitely worth a read, and your vote.

It’s set in a small Devon fishing village, Larcombe, and the local inn is called The Clove and Hoof. So the first question is, is that really ‘the cloven hoof’? This is never satisfactorily dealt with, to be honest. The full name is very much ‘The Clove and Hoof’ but when referred to casually it is called The Cloven.

It is at the centre of village life, and of the story. There’s a church too, but the vicar seems to be not a nice man at all, and the book begins with his death.

Various policemen – from the village bobby up to Scotland Yard – investigate, making sure to do each other down, form strange alliances and snub each other and the locals. They aren’t out to make friends. This is the policeman from London, staying at the Clove and Hoof:

Rosa came in, giggling, to ask if there was anything he’d be wanting. He looked her up and down very deliberately before he spoke. “I want a telescope, a detailed map of the district, pens, paper, ink, another blanket on the bed, a pot of very weak Chinese tea and the name of a man who has trustworthy boats for hire.”

An excellent list. Rosa can’t help with the telescope, and sends him to a local shop:

Old Sebastian Hannabus was busy disembowelling a cormorant and chatting to Peascod when Plumper stepped into his shop…

‘I was wanting a telescope’.  He tries one out, then suddenly says ‘D’you do any cobbling?’

‘No sir, Sam Bowle’s the cobbler…. But if ever you need the services of a mole-catcher…’

These scenes made me sit up and take notice – I thought the sequence was funny and unusual, a very different kind of character and way of operating. Later there is this:

‘Take me to this Scoutey’ cried the Inspector, startled for once in his upper-dog life.’

Many of the features of the crime story are similar to usual GA tropes, but this book really does try to do something different in its picture of life and its way of investigating the crime.  

As the endearing Mr Peascod says, ‘There are no sinister villains knocking about this place, with the possible exception of myself. Take Mr Charnock here. Busy from morn to night with his beloved boat, wedded to the Sea. What time’s he got for villainy? And you yourself, you might as well suspect Father Christmas of infanticide!’

But of course he is quite wrong – there must be some criminals in this village. It's a down and dirty kind of place, and filled with a lot of grumpy people. Although there’s a claim that some of it is beautiful, village life sounds fairly bleak in fact. There is a one-legged sailor:

‘John-Thomas Ridd, the mariner home from the sea. You only had to look at him to know that he was drunk on rum. He had a wooden leg, a black patch over his left eye and his dress was cut in an out-moded, seafaring mould. Summer visitors to Larcombe distrusted him. He looked too good to be true.’

And  - a wooden leg gives an interesting extra take on footprints – and could they be faked?

There are also anonymous letters, produced with the help of a children’s paintbox, of all things – paintboxes sold, of course, in the shop mentioned above.

The story rattles along, there is investigation and then action. There are very few women characters, and they are always seen through male eyes:

‘the barmaid in they days, not the one before Rosa, she was a Presbyterian or something she was, but the one before that, she was a regular bit of all right. So there was no telling was there?’

And a marked lack of posh people – no real class structure here to underpin the sleuthing, quite unusual for the time.

Earlier this year I blogged on an ECR Lorac book called Death of an Author, which contained much discussion of the differences between men’s and women’s writings, and whether you could tell a writer’s gender just from the words. With this book, I would absolutely have thought it was written by a man if I didn’t know better, it most definitely had that feel.

There is a nice introduction in this new edition, with some biographical detail of the author. I would also recommend John Norris’s post mentioned above with more about the plot and characters. John said: ‘Johnson has dared to flout the tacit and written rules of detective fiction and come up with a solution that defies all those conventions. I loved it and it made me grin in admiration.’

I absolutely agree with him.

The top fisherman is actually Norwegian, from the Norway State Archives.

The other one is ‘the oldest man in Clovelly’, a vintage picture that is widely available online.

View of Dartmouth in Devon, UK National Archives.

A cottage in Devon from the Library of Congress.


  1. I already like the sound of the setting for this one, Moira. The local inn is such a great idea for the hub of the action in a story. And it sounds as though the larger setting is done well, too. I have to admit I haven't read Johnson's work, but this one got my interest...

    1. Maybe it's her time to be rediscovered. She was real old-school Golden Age in one way, but also offered a different take on life. I think you might enjoy her. She didn't write much, I believe, but I will certainly look out for other books by her.

  2. This sounds wonderful! When I read the bit about disembowelling a cormorant, I thought of Cold Comfort Farm. It is just the sort of thing that might have been going on if Cold Comfort Farm had been set on the coast. Chrissie

    1. Excellent comparison, Chrissie - that is what it is like. I really enjoyed the moments when the visiting policeman was flummoxed by what was going on around him, and failed to understand village life.

  3. It's just been reprinted! I have ordered a copy. Chrissie

    1. Great! Look forward to hearing your verdict.

    2. I did enjoy it. Didn't worry too much about who had done it, just went with the flow. Could have done with a list of characters as I found it a bit difficult to get these salty types straight.

    3. Oh good, and yes, hard agree, a lot of village people to keep straight in the head! But worth a read.

  4. This sounds so fun! And something totally different on the RoY list for the week.

    1. It is, and as I say above, I liked that it was very much in the tradtion of the time, but managed to do something different.

  5. And my (American) bookstore has Moonstone Press available to order in their system! Have ordered this and Fear for Miss Bettany (yes, I’m a loyal CiB reader). JennLR

    1. You obviously are! Lovely to meet you Jenn, and thank you.

  6. That happens to me a lot... thinking that I haven't heard of a book or seen a review, and I find that John Norris has reviewed it earlier.

    I wasn't sure about this book but I am sure it is worth a try. I have purchased an ebook copy, not my preferred format but affordable.

    1. Oh yes, this is by no means the first time this has happened to me, with regard to John! I quite often have no memory at all, and then I find I commented on the post, said I wanted to read it etc.
      I hope you enjoy this - I thought it was a bit different, while still being very Golden Age.


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