Since Holmes and Watson, there has been an abundance of novels and stories featuring various sleuths and detectives, both professional and amateur, that have captured the imagination of readers on both sides of the pond. One of the lesser known series of crime fiction novels, at least in the US, was the Combridge and Jellipot mysteries, which was the creation of the sadly underappreciated S. Fowler Wright. Known mostly for his brilliant career in science fiction, he earned his bread and butter by writing numerous crime novels in the 30s which were popular at the time. But perhaps he was so prolific in this genre not just because it paid the bills, but because Wright always had a passionate interest in the legal system. In particular, he was a student of the limitations of forensic science as well as of the holes in the British legal system that would allow the innocent to receive conviction while those guilty of crime to maintain their freedom. This was explored in one of his earliest published works, "Police and Public," a piece of non-fiction that was actually banned for some time, and is a major theme of "The Attic Murder."
Here, a rather dopey protagonist hangs out with the wrong crowd at a bar, but his new drinking buddies turn out to be part of a large gang of hucksters and swindlers, and use him as the fall guy for a crime he didn't commit. He manages to slip away from custody and take up lodgings at a boarding house under an assumed name. But he must be the unluckiest guy in the world, because he stumbles across a brutal murder in the attic rooms of his new abode, bringing him back to the attention of the police. But his luck changes, as Inspector Combridge is on the case and Mr. Jellipot has agreed to serve as his council.
From here unfolds a plot that is just convoluted enough to keep the mystery fresh while not confusing the reader with too much bedazzling and dishonest misdirection. There are moments of some serious suspense and tension that feel quite modern, though I never got a serious sense of impending peril for the antagonists. The writing is top-notch, but a little dry, and lacks the characteristic Fowler Wright sarcasm and wit which makes his more polished works such a joy to read. This feels more like a rough draft of a screenplay than a fully fleshed novel. In fact, it almost seems that he not only rushed this novel to the publishers, but threw in Combridge and Jellipot as afterthoughts to add more sales appeal. This is because the two heroes have very little to do in this outing, and their interactions are very cursory and superficial, as if they hardly new each other prior to this case. The first two books tied together nicely, whereas this one has nothing to do with the others, and clearly was not initially meant as a continuation of adventures likely supposed to end with "The Secret of the Screen."
But a hurried work by S. Fowler Wright is a better product than most authors make in a lifetime. All of the motivations and actions of the characters are believable even when they do dumb things, because the author understands human psychology. So we have a thriller grounded in realism rather than on ridiculous machinations of pulp sensibilities merely for the sake of keeping the action and danger going for a non-stop attention-deficit dopamine hit. And his characters, though seemingly wooden at first pass, show subtle depth. Combridge, for example, seems to be at a point in his career where he seems to be doubting the sharpness of his own judgment, secretly worried that dementia may be setting in, and he jokes about resigning his post while deep down he is genuinely vulnerable. Also, the book features two female characters who are quite unusual for the genre and for the times, being more competent, crafty, and brave than their male counterparts without making everyone out to be buffoons or inferior, like we unfortunately see in much of our contemporary drama. Respectful portrayal and depth for all characters no matter their race or gender (and in some cases, transcending identity) has been a strong defining point of Wright's work, and our more modern screenwriters and novelists could learn a thing or two from this guy.
So I'd rate this overall 3.5 stars, rounded to 4. Far from Wright's best, but one of his most accessible.