Classic Crime

Francis Durbridge

Francis Durbridge was born on the 25th November 1912. In 1938, Durbridge created his most well-known character, Paul Temple for a radio drama. The first, ‘Send for Paul Temple’ was broadcast in eight episodes from April 1938. Between 1952 and 1980, Durbridge wrote 17 TV serials for the BBC. Until 1959, the programmes were brought out under the title of ‘A Francis Durbridge Serial’, but were then due to his popularity, changed to ‘Francis Durbridge Presents…’ Most of Durbridge’s novels were dramatisations first and novels second. Many of these novels were collaborations, usually with John Thewes, Douglas Rutherford and Charles Hatten. Some written by Durbridge and Rutherford were published under the name of ‘Paul Temple’ to make them feel as though the great detective himself was alive and writing the books himself!

Durbridge garnered himself a very good name with the BBC with his serialisations on the TV as well as the radio. He even got a call from Lew Grade who offered Durbridge a salary five times bigger than what he was getting at the BBC to come and work for him. Colleagues at the BBC heard of this conversation and twenty-four hours later, the BBC put an offer on the table to rival that of the one made by Grade. Durbridge decided to stay with the BBC.

Francis Durbridge married Norah Lawley in 1940 and they had two sons. He continued to write until his later years – writing his last stage play, ‘Sweet Revenge’ in 1991. Durbridge died in 1998 having left a huge legacy including Paul Temple who is still listened to on the radio around the world.

Review: My Wife Melissa

‘My Wife Melissa’ was written after the very successful TV series, ‘Melissa’. The first was transmitted in 1964, then 1974 and finally by Alan Bleasdale in 1997 with Jennifer Ehle playing the central role. However, having read the book I can see that Durbridge was a master at plot and like his scripts, his books are spare and direct. ‘My Wife Melissa’ comes in at 190 pages which shows that in decades past a writer could tell a story succinctly and without the need to create 300 pages full of padding. I am a great fan of past writers who had no need or wish to write large books. Even Christie’s books are all slim volumes.

Guy is an ex-journalist from Fleet Street. Having been made redundant he is now hard at work writing his book. His wife of three years, Melissa doesn’t work but manages to spend quite a lot, especially on hats that Melissa never seems to wear. One night, Melissa along with friends, Felix and Paula are off to Don Page’s party (another party thrown by the latest racing celebrity in town!). Guy cries off and the small party leave. Guy notices that Melissa in her scatterbrained manner has left her handbag on top of one of her numerous hatboxes.

Three hours later having just finished the next instalment of his novel, the phone rings in the flat. Guy answers to hear his wife on the phone asking him to come to the party to meet a man who could turn Guy’s fortunes. And could he bring her forgotten handbag with him. That is the first strange incident of the night – his wife’s handbag is no longer in the hall where Guy saw it when Melissa first left the flat three hours ago. Driving to the party and getting lost, Guy asks a policeman for directions only to find out a woman has been found murdered on an embankment. The Inspector called out is holding a familiar coat – one worn by Paula who left Guy’s flat only a few hours before. Asked to identify the body Guy believes he will find his friend Felix’s wife dead. Instead, he looks down at the body of his own wife, Melissa. She has been dead for over an hour. If that is the case, then how did she telephone him at home when she had been dead long before?

Durbridge leads us through a maze of bluff and double bluff with this, one of his most well-known crime novels. With a small cast of characters, Durbridge manages with a professional hand to lead the reader down the garden path. As Guy is faced with the possibility that he could be going insane or framed for his wife’s murder, the pace of this novel is relentless. Guy’s investigation in to his wife’s death leads him from disaster to disaster. What is captivating is the way Durbridge made me leap from one suspect to another in turn throughout the book. ‘My Wife Melissa’ is a riveting read and one that will keep you entranced for a quiet afternoon. Durbridge was a master storyteller and his enthusiasm for a ripping good yarn shines through in this enthralling tale.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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