If you look upon a mountain climb as taking place in a large, open-air locked room, then Showell Styles was right to choose Glyn Carr as his pseudonym for fifteen detective novels featuring Abercrombie Lewker, all of which concern murders committed among the crags and slopes of peaks scattered around the world. There’s no doubt that John Dickson Carr, the king of the locked room mystery, would have agreed that Styles managed to find a way to lock the door of a room that had no walls and only the sky for a ceiling. In fact, it was while Styles was climbing a pitch on the classic Milestone Buttress on Tryfan in Wales that it struck him “how easy it would be to arrange an undetectable murder in that place, and by way of experiment I worked out the system and wove a thinnish plot around it.”
That book was, of course, Death on Milestone Buttress, and upon its publication Styles’ English publisher, Geoffrey Bles, immediately asked for more climbing mysteries. Over the next eighteen years, Styles produced another fourteen Lewker books before he halted the series, having run out “of ways of slaughtering people on steep rock-faces.” But before Lewker put away his ice axe and ropes for good, Styles managed to send him to Switzerland (Murder on the Matterhorn), the Himalayas (A Corpse at Camp Two), Austria (The Corpse in the Crevasse and Lewker in the Tirol), Scandinavia (Lewker in Norway) and Majorca (Holiday with Murder). The rest of the books were set in the place Styles no doubt loves the best, Wales, where, now in his early 90s, he still makes his home.
The foreign locales included some of the places Styles had himself visited, first during the period he refers to as his “tramp” days from 1934 to 1937, and later as the leader of a Himalayan climb in 1954. Somehow he never managed to find a way to send Lewker to the Arctic, where he led expeditions in 1952 and 1953.
While Lewker professes to be new to detective work in Death on Milestone Buttress, he certainly was no stranger to danger and adventure, having served in Department Seven of the Special Commando Branch of British Intelligence during World War II. In fact, when Styles was searching for a character to solve murders among his beloved mountain peaks, he needed look no further than to three of his thrillers, published a few years earlier under his Styles byline. Abercrombie Lewker debuted in Traitor’s Mountain (1947) when he revealed himself, in the guise of a tramp, to another British agent: “He was immensely broad, in general shape resembling a pocket-flask, and his rusty elongated bowler crowned a rather pouchy countenance fringed with a bush of black whisker. His expression was the expression of a dictator travelling incognito. His stained and bulging raincoat was buttoned to the neck with six buttons.”
Although the events in that novel were based on Styles’ own experiences in the Royal Navy during the war, the author and his fictional creation bore little physical resemblance to one other. Styles’ jacket photos from the period show a lean, very fit-looking man, obviously capable of taking on the most arduous of climbs. Lewker, on the other hand, is described as short, bald and fat, and people are always amazed to learn of his climbing feats. Yet, size notwithstanding, Lewker is an imposing figure, perhaps the finest Shakespearean actor of his day, with a booming voice and an often irritating predilection for quoting the Bard at the drop of a hat or a corpse. His wife Georgina is obviously deeply in love with him—and he with her—but she knows that one of her primary roles is to keep his pomposity from running away with itself and getting him into trouble. Ego aside, “Filthy,” as his friends punningly call him, is generous to a fault and always willing to lend a hand to friend and stranger alike.
Filthy is also a man of old-fashioned (or perhaps time-honored) values, and chivalry is one he holds most dear, which explains, in part, why he turns detective to solve young Hilary Bourne’s moral dilemma. Other aspects of Death on Milestone Buttress may puzzle or amuse modern readers grown used to the casual sex that permeates today’s books and movies, not to mention television programs. In 1951, it was still possible for a proper girl to be ruined—or at least think of herself as being ruined—by having sex outside of marriage.
The attitudes toward politics in Death on Milestone Buttress may also puzzle readers for whom the Soviet Union is rapidly becoming a distant memory. Although it was published in 1951, the events in Death on Milestone Buttress take place a couple of years earlier, when Russia still posed a threat to the free world and the atomic bomb was still in its infancy. On the other hand, World War II was recent enough that people had not forgotten that Russia had been an ally against the Nazis. British communists were suspect in some circles but, on the whole, belonging to the party did not automatically brand one as a traitor. The Red Scare had not yet occupied the full attention of the political witch-hunters, especially in the United Kingdom. Indeed, one of the village girls is proud to claim that her sheepherder intended is the only member of the party in their entire valley. Lewker himself is more amused than scandalized by his encounters with the two or three party members who find themselves suspected of murder.
Besides, Filthy and Hilary are too busy sorting through clues and working out timetables to worry much about either sex or politics. Reference is made to Dorothy L. Sayers, the chosen reading matter (the other being Das Kapital) of one of the communists, but Styles actually owes as much to the alibi-busting tradition of Freeman Wills Crofts or Christopher Bush as to Sayers, although Filthy’s larger-than-life characterization may remind some readers of a—shall we say—less handsome Lord Peter.
But the real fun of the Lewker books lies in their depiction of life in rural Wales and in the love Lewker and his fellow climbers share for their chosen sport. Lewker is a little reluctant to embrace the kind of extreme technical climbing that was an outgrowth of Hitler’s desire to see Germans demonstrate Aryan supremacy by climbing many of Europe’s impossible North Faces. Nor is he willing to use words like “hiking,” preferring to call such treks walks or tramps. If Shakespeare didn’t use the word, why should he?
In addition to being an accomplished climber himself, Styles has written scores of books on the subject, ranging from guides to climbs in Wales to a full-fledged standard history of the sport, On the Top of the World (1967). Styles’ love for the mountains and climbing comes through so strongly that it is almost impossible to resist the urge to put down one of his climbing mysteries and head for the nearest mountain trail, though those of us who live in places like Colorado can’t help but be amused when Lewker appreciatively sniffs the clean mountain air at a thousand—or even three thousand—feet above sea level.
But even the most sedentary readers can enjoy these stories. Those who prefer to do their mountaineering from the comfort of an armchair need not worry about being unfamiliar with the terminology or techniques of the sport. Styles is first and foremost a storyteller, having written many books for children as well as historical novels, and he never forgets that the first role of the professional writer is to entertain.
Tom & Enid Schantz