The Rev John Dennis

(creator: George A Birmingham)

George A Birmingham
The Rev John Dennis is an Irish precentor and minor canon at Carminster Cathedral, where he acts as choirmaster. "He was young, pleasing in appearance, and ... had eyes capable of merry twinkling." To the Archdeacon, however, he "was singularly lacking in good taste, had little taste or no sense of decency or reverence." He certainly has little time for time-wasters and is always ready to speak his mind. When the long-winded verger admits that something is "not my business, strictly speaking", Dennis does not hesitate to tell him, "if it's not, I wish you would leave it to whoever's business it is". And he is quite prepared to go along with the idea that the choirboys should beat an offending boy with cricket stumps ("No harm will be done by forty or fifty stokes," he blithely tells them) - an idea that must have been a lot more acceptable in 1930 than it is now. As he says, "I hate all rules myself and make a point of breaking them as often as I can".

Despite "a natural sympathy with all offenders, a fondness for a black sheep as such", he proves himself a strong ally for Inspector Smallways of the local police, and turns out to be a shrewd investigator. As he himself admits to Smallways, "I'm never wrong in anything that requires intelligence". However, he gets his come-uppance right at the end when he is banished to become Vicar of Fishpond Canonicorum, "a small parish .... a long way from anywhere". Could there be something autobiographical in his portrayal?

George A Birmingham (real name: The Rev Canon James Owen Hannay,1865-1950) was born in Belfast and educated at Haileybury and Trinity College, Dublin. He was Rector of Holy Trinity Church, Westport, Co. Mayo from 1892 to 1913 but scandalised his Northern Irish parishioners by joining the Gaelic League (that promoted the preservation of the Irish language and nationalist ideas). When a play, General John Regan, based on his story, was produced in Westport, there was a riot, and a boycotting of Hannay when the townspeople discovered that he was the author. He left Westport and, after service as an army chaplain, settled in 1924 at Mells Rectory in Somerset. Later he became vicar of the small parish of Holy Trinity in Kensingon, London, where he died. His wife had predeceased him.

He was a popular author and published as many as 83 books including nearly 60 gently satiric novels about Ireland and detective stories, such as The Hymn Tune Mystery (reviewed below), as well as religious, autobiographical and other works, the more serious of them being written under his own name.

The Hymn Tune Mystery (1930)
The Hymn Tune Mystery is described on its cover as "a mystery story in which there is murder, but not an obtrusive or harrowing one". It is more concerned with the inter-relationship of the clergy at the small cathedral of Charminster, where nothing of great importance has happened for many years - except for a burglary by a dishonest Verger called Hill from which "immensely valuable" emeralds had never been recovered. Hill had ended up in prison.

But then the organist, Cresswood,collapses dead. Was he drunk at the time? Could it just be a simple case of heart failure? As the Dean had heard somebody moving around in the organ loft after he'd heard the organist fall, it begins to sound increasingly sinister. The characters, particularly those of the Dean, the bossy archdeacon, and the young Irish precentor, the Rev John Dennis, are all strongly drawn.

Then there is the Dean's formidable daughter Sybil, who had given up the chance of becoming a female Don (at Oxford) and who "cut herself off from the mild delights of scholarly society, and came home to look after her father and 'run' his deanery for him .... Unfortunately for himself, and perhaps a little unfortunately for Sybil, the Dean did not like a house which is 'run'. He preferred the kind which ambles quietly, where nothing is very highly polished, and meals are served unpunctually".

Sybil "never succeeded in making her father what she deemed he ought to be. Up to a certain point he satisfied her. With his silky white hair and his thin, ascetic face, he was, beyond dispute, the most picturesque dean in England .... His attendances at the cathedral services were regular and reverent. No dean ever walked with more gracious dignity behind a verger carrying a silver mace. But Sybil wanted more. She wanted a Dean of Carminster who made influential speeches in the Church Assembly, who carried weight in Convocation, who published from time to time treatises on the Apostolic Succession and the bearing of that doctrine on the validity of sacraments. These things Dean Grosvenor obstinately refused to do. He was growing old - very old." What he really enjoyed doing was having a quiet time and translating ancient Latin drinking songs into contemporary poetry, a pastime he had to conceal from his daughter.

The whole story is told with a nice gentle sense of humour, as when it is explained that the local innkeeper who is very dependent on trade from visiting Americans "who come in hired Daimler cars .... has not wasted money in modernising his inn. He realises that though Americans like baths and central heating they preferred atmosphere; and atmosphere, since the 'Mitre' dates from the reign of Queen Elizabeth, is easily supplied, and is much cheaper than either baths or heating."

The puritanical archdeacon particularly disapproves of the ornate Renaissance tomb of Bishop Feda which, until he got it moved, had occupied a prominent place in the cathedral: "There had been several ladies in the life story of Bishop Feda, especially a tawny- haired Chloe, to whom he actually wrote a poem. The poem was in Latin, but even that did not excuse the Bishop."

John Dennis soon forms an effective partnership with local police inspector Smallways in his investigation into the organist's death, which then leads Dennis on a hunt for the manuscript of a missing hymn tune, apparently sent from prison by burglar Hill before he had died. There's a hope that it may contain the whereabouts of the missing emeralds. He is actively encouraged in his detective work by Smallways who sends him off to question the Dean and very reticent prison chaplain, both of whom, Smallways feels, would cause trouble if he approached them direct.

When Dennis asks Chaplain Hartshorn about the letter containing the hymn tune that Hill may have sent from prison, the chaplain just quotes prison regulations at him. "Prisoners", he said, "are permitted to write a letter at intervals, which depend on the rules of the stage they attain by industry and good conduct."
"Hill," said Dennis, "had attained the stage of dying of pneumonia, but of course I don't know whether he got there by industry and good conduct."
The chaplain "looked at him suspiciously. It was impossible to suppose that anyone would dare to poke fun at prison regulations, but Dennis's words sounded like an attempt at some sort of joke. Hartshorn deeply distrusted humour, as indeed all wise officials do. In a world held together by pompous officialdom humour is the deadliest of all microbes." But even so, Dennis succeeds in reading between the lines and so gets the information he wants.

It is Dennis, hungry but fortified by beer ("It's a well-known law," he tells Smallways, " that the mind works best when the body is hungry. That's why all the great theologians went in for fasting, and why all first-rate artists, inventors, and so on begin by starving in garrets), who sits down and, after sending Smallways out for a hymn book, works out where the emeralds must be hidden. It was a puzzle that the murdered organist had had no chance to solve. "I dare say he wouldn't have got to it as quickly as we have. Cresswood wasn't a very intelligent man whereas - "
"Whereas you are," said Smallways. "Don't be too modest."
"I was going to say we are," said Dennis. "I don't want to deprive you of your proper share of credit, Smallways. It was you who fetched the hymn-book and I couldn't have got on without it."

So, dated though the story may be in places, there is still plenty in it to amuse and entertain.

There are various brief references to the author on the web. You can read his General John Regan book online at no charge. This Project Gutenberg site also has an online copy of his A Padre in France and some of his other books too.

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The Hymn Tune Mystery cover
The book first appeared in 1930. Below is an economy-model wartime reprint, published in 1940.
The Hymn Tune Mystery cover
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