“The Prison Murder” by Rex Dark was first published by Wright & Brown in 1939, then later released in soft cover, via the Mellifont Press, in 1943. Published as a 96-page digest-paperback, it doesn’t sport a price anywhere on the cover or the spine, nor is one mentioned on the inside.
Looking at the author’s name bubbled onto the cover, I even wonder if the artwork is original to the book or recycled. The illustration certainly has zero to do with the contents.
The identity of Rex Dark has never been ascertained, although guesses abound. Let’s look at who else wrote for Wright & Brown. “Roland Daniel” immediately comes to mind. Same letters, same time period. However, I’ve not read enough of either author’s works to make a definitive statement.
The novel opens with Amelia and her husband, simply referred to by their joint surname of Cressman, discussing the plans to obtain certain papers from another crook. He has a silenced revolver loaded with two bullets. While preparing in an alternate room, Amelia opens the window and fires off both bullets. To her amazement, the muffled retort does not travel to her husband. Unaware that he is proceeding to plan with an empty weapon, he departs with the gun. Amelia was worried that he intended on killing their prey, hence the real reason she fired off the rounds….
Cressman makes his way toward his target, goes inside the man’s abode, and is dumbfounded to find the man already dead, two bullets in him. The door crashes in and the police enter. It’s an open-and-closed case for them. A dead body, two bullets, a killer on the premises, and, his weapon has been recently fired. He is taken away to prison, where he proclaims emphatically he is innocent of the murder, but not the premeditation thereof….
Chapter Three introduces us to private detective Bartholomew Dane and later, to Inspector Thackeray. The inspector has just phoned and is inviting himself over to dinner and a select bottle of wine but foremost, Dane finds himself dealing with a young girl (Miss Virginia Hyam) of fine social standing, whom has received a threat-letter. Deciding that the letter is credible, he and Thackeray stake out a restaurant in which she is to meet the writer. While there, they spot two hoodlums, but they do not seem interested in the girl. After much time has passed, the pair join her table, deciding that the letter-writer either was spooked or is a no-show. Virginia is certain that they are putting on false airs to comfort her, but is convinced that she is ultimately in some form of danger.
While following Virginia home, from a safe distance, they find a rat named The Weasel rifling through the residence trash. Certain that he is part of the plot, he refuses to cop to anything evil and states he is merely searching for scrap metal to sell during the war effort. They have no grounds to detain him, so let him go.
From the girl’s residence, we are introduced to her father, a servant name of Gant, a house female companion name of Mrs. Julian Northmore (whom seems to have affections toward Virginia’s father), the father’s private in-house secretary (Peter Tallack), and a man whom under false-pretenses of wealth is hitting on Virginia (Henry Ransom). Her father, Sir Bernard, having too much money and time in retirement, often pursues human interest cases. His current fad is prison reform.
Tallack, on Sir Bernard’s behalf, schedules all of them to visit the local prison and see what the true conditions are like. While there, they meet Cressman, whom talks privately and in earnest with Sir Bernard. What is whispered between the two, we are never told. A couple hours later, the warden is informed that Cressman has died, from an apparent suicide. However, Tallack remarks that a man on the verge of pointing his finger at the true murderer would hardly kill himself. Furthermore, he notes, that he saw someone pass him a drink, while they were departing. Virginia supports this claim, as she too saw the mug.
It is later ascertained that he indeed consumed poison from the mug. The five (Sir Bernard, daughter Virginia, Mrs. Julian Northmore, Peter Tallack, and Henry Ransom) are immediately under suspicion, as they were within the time-table as suspects to have slipped Cressman the poison.
Throughout the rest of the novel, Tallack acts like an amateur detective, openly theorizing how each of the four (himself excluded, because one does not accuse their own self) could or would have murdered Cressman, what evidence he might have had on each and the outcome. The evidence he creates is spectacularly damning on all counts, and everything remarkably comes to a head when it is learned that Amelia Cressman appears to know who performed the actual murder!
That night, infuriated by the police constantly tracking their every move, Virginia stages an escape for the five to a night club and announces loudly to the driver a different location. The police are lulled into a false security and accidentally permit the car to slip away. No fear; they know which night club they are heading toward, right? Wrong. On arrival, they realize that they were duped.
Private detective Bartholomew Dane and Inspector Thackeray are irked to learn of the deceit, and to further vex the situation, Cressman’s widow is found stabbed to death. Fully realizing the importance that one of these fools is a cunning murderer, they decide to lay a trap for the man or woman, by setting the final climatic scene to lure the killer into the open.
They fool the ill-fated person into believing that Cressman’s wife has actually not only survived the stabbing, but, is coming to the house to finger her would-be killer. As the lady enters and is announced by the butler, the killer, shockingly, turns out to be Peter Tallack, whom in reality is Sir Bernard’s dead nephew!!!
(Earlier in the novel we learn that the nephew, whose real name is not Peter Tallack, of course, got into a fight in America with a New York “tough” by the name of the Bowery Kid, over a girl. Reportedly, on being slain by the Bowery Kid, she told the police that the dead man was actually slain BY THE BOWERY KID, in order to save his life. Now, he and she had shrewdly returned to England and in order to avoid a scandal, had slain others to obtain his own father’s Will, which declared him the initial rights holder to the monies and estate. However, being a murderer, he could never claim to be heir. He’d have been locked up! Hence, the murders and blackmail racket).
Returning to the house, on hearing Cressman’s wife’s name announced by the butler, he draws out his gun and seeks to make good his escape but is thwarted at the open window by the police. He ends his life by blowing out his brains. His girl-friend maintains her silence as to his true identity in order to still obtain the promised blackmail funds and not sully the family name….