The Mysterious Mr. Badman is a long-forgotten but entertaining crime novel, its light-heartedness all the more unexpected given the author’s reputation as a master of the macabre. The teasing tone is set right from the start, in the opening sentence: “When at two o’clock on a sultry July afternoon Athelstan Digby undertook to keep an eye on the contents of the old bookshop in Keldstone High Street, he deliberately forgot to mind his own business.”
Digby is—at least, as far as I am aware—the only blanket manufacturer to feature as the protagonist of a crime novel. He is holidaying in Keldstone, where his nephew, Jim Pickering, contemplates taking over the local doctor’s practice. Keldstone is in the Cleveland Hills in Yorkshire, which was the native county of the author, W. F. Harvey, and the pleasant setting contributes to the charm of the novel.
Digby offers to look after a bookshop owned by his landlord and is perplexed to find three different customers—a vicar, a chauffeur, and a stranger to the neighbourhood—all asking for a copy of John Bunyan’s The Life and Death of Mr. Badman. As he says, with a mastery of understatement, “I can’t help thinking that there is something at the back of it.” Indeed there is, and the plot soon begins to thicken.
Everything I have learned about William Fryer Harvey (1885–1937) indicates that he was an admirable and indeed heroic individual who, over the years, experienced more than his fair share of misfortune. He was, at least, lucky to be born into an affluent family. The Harveys came from Leeds and were prominent members of the city’s community of Quakers. One of seven children, he published a memoir of his early days, We Were Seven, in 1935. He was educated at Quaker Schools in York and in Reading before going up to Balliol College, Oxford, the alma mater of many crime writers as well as such fictional detectives of the Golden Age as Lord Peter Wimsey, Dr. Gideon Fell, and R. L. Woodthorpe’s Nicholas Slade. Harvey took an M.A. in 1910 but illness disrupted his studies as well as his plans to qualify as a doctor.
Interesting biographical notes about Harvey are to be found in David Stuart Davies’s introduction to a 2009 collection of Harvey’s short stories, The Beast with Five Fingers. Davies explains that Harvey sought to aid his recovery by taking a voyage around the world, in the course of which he spent some time in Australia and New Zealand and argues that these experiences helped to fuel his imagination. He became interested in adult education, hoping to assist those less fortunate than himself. When war broke out, he joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and spent time in Flanders. Subsequently, he qualified as a surgeon and became a surgeon-lieutenant in the Royal Navy. During that time occurred an incident which had profound consequences for him. He risked his life in order to carry out an amputation of a senior petty officer’s arm after the man became trapped in the wrecked and flooded engine room of a destroyer which was about to break in two. As a result, the patient was rescued, but the escaping oil fumes caused serious damage to Harvey’s lungs. He lost consciousness and had to be dragged out to save his own life. He was awarded the Albert Medal for gallantry at sea, but his health never recovered.
After the war, Harvey returned to the field of adult education, only for health problems to enforce his retirement in 1925. He and his wife, Margaret, moved to Switzerland in the hope that the clean air would assist his breathing, but they missed England and returned to live in Weybridge. He was able to devote time to writing, and the couple moved to Letchworth in 1935. At the time of his death, aged fifty-two, he was President of the Friends’ Historical Society; shortly before he died, he was working on a paper about “the past training of members in the art of Quaker worship as shown in our literature from the seventeenth century to the early nineteenth.”
Harvey’s first published book, Midnight House and Other Tales, appeared in 1910. Ten years later it was followed by The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby, a collection of loosely linked stories. Two more collections of eerie stories appeared in his lifetime: The Beast with Five Fingers (1928) and Moods and Tenses (1933). Digby reappeared in The Mysterious Mr. Badman, published in 1934 by the small firm of Pawling and Ness. Unfortunately, Pawling and Ness ceased trading shortly thereafter, a development which seems rather typical of Harvey’s bad luck. As a result, copies of this novel have until now been in very short supply.There is an eerie quality to Harvey’s best stories which is subtle and unpredictable…He trades in murder, mystery, and the supernatural, but occasional touches of humour lighten several otherwise disturbing tales.
There is an eerie quality to Harvey’s best stories which is subtle and unpredictable. There is a touch of Poe and a dash of M. R. James, but his writing is distinctive. He trades in murder, mystery, and the supernatural, but occasional touches of humour lighten several otherwise disturbing tales. A splendid example, surprisingly little-known, is “The Habeas Corpus Club,” a witty and original “bibliomystery.” “August Heat” and “The Dabblers” are stories of considerable merit, but his most famous work is undoubtedly “The Beast with Five Fingers,” which concerns a disembodied hand. The story was filmed in 1946, with a screenplay by Curt Siodmak and a score by Max Steiner. Peter Lorre gives an especially memorable performance. Another version of the story appeared in a segment within the mid-sixties horror anthology film, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The success of the earlier film seems to have sparked a revival of interest in Harvey’s work. A posthumous collection of stories, The Arm of Mrs. Egan and Other Stories, appeared in 1951. These stories, which Harvey had left in manuscript, included a tantalising and first-rate crime story, “The Lake.” He will no doubt always be regarded primarily as a horror writer, but as this book shows, his contribution to the crime genre is worth remembering.
From Martin Edwards’ introduction to The Mysterious Mr. Badman by W.F. Harvey. Introduction copyright © 2023 by Martin Edwards. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved.