The British navy is worried. Their ships sailing from Penmouth are being torpedoed at regular frequency especially if they happen to be carrying important cargo. Desmond Merrion of Naval Intelligence is asked to find the spy operating in that area. As Merrion himself cannot go over there, he dispatches one of his men.
Meanwhile, Valetta Hosking, working in the W.R.N.S, reaches St, Willery at Penmouth, to visit her aunts who had brought her up. En route to their home, she stops at the Ariadne inn in order to buy a bottle of wine from there. The inn-keeper, Charlie Summers greets her warmly but his warmth disappears when another customer, Mrs. Hella Gruber, the wife of the local photographer, Arthur Gruber, walks in. Seeing his curt behaviour with the woman, Valetta is surprised because she had an idea that Hella and Charlie were pretty intimate with each other. As she is thinking about it, in walks a florid gentleman by the name of Parker. He informs all and sundry that he, an actor, has come from the US in order to play for the British troops in the nearby town. However, his account of his journey from the States, makes Valetta immediately suspicious of him. Before leaving the inn, she runs into another guest, Mr. Thakeham whose face and head is all bandaged.
Later, her aunts, Jane and Harry, tell her that having been injured in the war, Mr. Thakeham is recuperating at St. Williery. They also fill her with the other news around the village: Arthur Gruber is supposedly a German spy, Hella Gruber is having an affair too many, Michael Polruan, the son of Lord St. Orran who had joined the RAF is reported to be missing, presumed dead. This, they add further, has distressed his stepmother, Lady St. Orran, tremendously since she was the one who did not like the wastrel life of an artist that Michael was leading and pushed him into making himself useful. Now she was feeling guilty about it all while his father, Lord St. Orran, was taking it much more philosophically.
That night, Valetta takes a post-dinner walk in order to locate a knife that Aunt Jane had left behind where she had been cutting bracken. As she mounts the cliffs, however, Valetta becomes aware that a couple was somewhere near her in the dark. Not willing to witness a romantic assignation, Valetta hides though she does notice when a shadow falls on a rock that it has a gigantic head like that of Mr. Thakeham. Soon, however, she finds herself running as a woman’s scream pierces the night. Before she can reach the place though her foot sinks into a rabbit hole and she twists her ankle which makes her unable to move on her own. Wondering if she would have to spend the night on the cliffs, Valetta feels she is dreaming when a voice speaks near her ears. A man stands next to her in the uniform of a dispatch-rider. He offers to take her home but she insists on first finding the knife. When they reach the place they find the body of Hella Gruber with a knife sticking out of her chest.
Horrified, Valetta can only stare at the body but the man alongside tells her that he would telephone for help. There is a telephone, he informs to Valetta’s amazement, at Michael’s studio which they had crossed on the way. From there, he dials Lord Orran’s castle and when the ring is answered thrusts the instrument into Valetta’s hands and saying that he needs to get on with his work, disappears in the dark. Valetta tells Pearce, the butler about finding the body and asks him to get help. Soon (but not soon enough for Valetta who has to sit all alone in the dark – I totally sympathise with her) Lord Orran arrives with his footman. Valetta takes the two of them to where the corpse had lain but is shocked when there is no body lying there. Meanwhile, Lord Orran asks her whether she is sure that the body was of Hella Gruber and not of his wife who it seems has disappeared from the castle. And all this on the first night of her coming home!
The next day adds to the mystification when the family doctor, Dr. Redbourne asks her to keep the happenings of the previous night to herself…. And then just when Valetta is thinking it was all a bad dream, a body is fished out of the waters.
So what really happened? Did Valetta simply imagine the body in her painful delirious state? Who is dead? Where did the body disappear? Where is Lady Orran? What does Gruber do on his trips to the town? Why has Charlie changed towards Hella? As the case becomes more complicated both Merrion and his friend Inspector Arnold find themselves at the hereto sleepy cove, one in search of a spy and the other in search of a murderer.
I do not enjoy Burton very much but this yarn is top-notch. Both the mysteries are good and kept me guessing. Add to it the eerie atmosphere and the gossip of a village, and you have a book I couldn’t put down. The only grouse that I have with the book is the preening self-satisfaction of Merrion.
First Line: One afternoon in early October, two men stood alone in a big room at the Admiralty.
Publication Details: 1944. London: Collins (The Crime Club), 1944.
Alternate Title: The Shadow on the Cliff
Series: Desmond Merrion #29