The Perfect Alibi
PublisherMoonstone Press
Date Published01 May 2019
Price£ 8.99

The Perfect Alibi

by Christopher St John Sprigg

Industrialist Anthony Mullins is found dead after a fire in a locked garage. All principal suspects have alibis, but all, including the victim, have something to hide.


Christopher St John Sprigg was a witty and prolific writer who published seven crime novels in just four years between 1933 and his death in 1937. He also produced six more non-fiction books of poetry, politics, plays, short stories, ghost and aeronautics textbooks as Christopher Caudwell, most of which were published after his death.

At the end of 1936, he left for Spain and became a machine gun instructor and editor of the Battalion Wall newspaper for the International Brigade. He was killed on his first day of action during in the battle of Jarama Valley in February 1937, last seen firing a machine gun to cover the retreat of his section.

What this remarkable man could have been is anybody’s guess. But the four crime novels featuring journalist sleuth Charles Venables are minor masterpieces of slightly subversive Golden Age detection. Although The Perfect Alibi is perhaps the least satisfying of them, it certainly has the most interesting and complex plot.

Wealthy industrialist Anthony Mullins is found dead after a fire in a locked garage. An autopsy reveals a bullet wound to his head, but when no gun is found, a murder investigation begins.

There are plenty of people with reasons to kill a peculiarly unpleasant man, but all the principal suspects have impeccable alibis – and all, including the victim, have something to hide!

The complicated plot involves a locked room mystery, unbreakable alibis, and two romantic sub-plots. But after a positive surfeit of sleuths, both professional and amateur, fail, Venables, by now covering events in a far-off East European country, offers an inspired idea about the only possible explanation.

The book has got some real weaknesses. The Chesterton-style pastiche that is Venables’ version of the contretemps between Patricia Mullins and the artist Filson does not fit the tone of the book. And the idea that one of the suspects could be incommunicado for months without anyone asking where he was or making serious and competent inquiries, seems unlikely. The widow Mullins too seems rather ill-served by being shoved into a happy ever after role with Venables’ college friend and well-bred police constable Laurence Sadler.

Sprigg makes a fair attempt at papering over the cracks. But some readers will regard his frolicsome treatment of the conventions of the genre as flippant, although his writing has such thorough-going enjoyment and barbed humour it is impossible not to be swept along – even if his distaste for the class from which he came and disliked so much is evident at every turn.

Reviewed 31 October 2020 by John Cleal