The Mysterious Mr Badman by WF Harvey – Review
By Sarah Morgan
What do you mean you’ve never heard of WF Harvey? Well, shame on you!
Born in Leeds and educated at York’s Quaker Bootham School before studying at Oxford, he originally trained to be a doctor, until his own health began to suffer, prompting him to pursue an interest in writing, concentrating mostly on horror – his story The Beast with Five Fingers has been filmed many times and been described as a minor masterpiece.
Harvey also dabbled in crime thrillers; The Mysterious Mr Badman is one of them. Originally published in 1934, just three years before the author’s premature death at the age of 52, it’s now available as part of the British Library’s Crime Classics series – and if you are unfamiliar with his work, it’s an excellent place to start.
Subtitled ‘A Yorkshire Bibliomystery’, it features locations inspired by places Harvey probably knew well (the front cover image looks like a vintage travel poster depicting Brimham Rocks). He was living in Letchworth at the time the tale was written, so perhaps the process of constructing the story and its settings acted as a wistful trip down memory lane.
The mystery begins in the village of Keldstone, where the amazingly named blanket manufacturer Athelstan Digby is visiting his nephew Jim, who’s considering becoming the local GP. While staying in lodgings above a bookshop, he offers to mind the place while his hosts are away.
On his first day, something bizarre occurs – the shop is visited by a vicar from a neighbouring parish, a chauffeur and a stranger from out of town who all request a copy of the same tome: The Life and Death of Mr Badman by John Bunyan. They all go away empty-handed because it’s out of stock, although a copy soon arrives in a bundle of books brought in to sell by a local youngster.
When it’s later stolen, Digby and Jim decide to investigate why it’s taken on such significance – and the plot thickens when a murder linked to the theft takes place…
I’ve now read quite a few novels in this much-admired series, and this one is perhaps my favourite. That’s not just due to the fact that the landscapes it depicts are wonderful and the story intriguing, but because the characters are fascinating. Thankfully, the entertaining and charming Digby turned up in more of Harvey’s stories – a collection of them, entitled The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby, is now on my ‘to be read’ pile.
The only downer is that Harvey himself died so young, robbing the world of even more amazing tales.
‘The Mysterious Mr Badman’ by WF Harvey is published by the British Library, £9.99 paperback