Whispering Beeches stood well back from the roadway, almost hidden by thickly-growing trees that gave it its name. Its owner, Doctor Shard, had been murdered by an unknown hand in his laboratory, since when the house has remained empty for three years, dubbed locally as 'Sinister House'. Stories had circulated of shadowy figures seen after dark flitting about the weed-choked grounds and of lights behind the dark windows.
Newspaper reporter Anthony Gale had made a habit of stopping to look whenever he passed the house at nightfall. After one night, noticing a light in one room, he had entered through the open front door, only to stumble over a man's body lying stark and rigid, with a gaping throat wound!
Had Peter Lake not elected to walk home on that hot summer night, and got caught in a storm, his life might have been changed. He would never have met the beautiful Lola Marsh, a young woman who burgled his home, and would have remained ignorant of the existence of the sinister 'Mr K'. He'd have avoided the danger surrounding his finding of the green fountain pen belonging to Harvey Slade—whose dead body Peter discovered when he took shelter in Slade's house.
But fate decreed that he took the route that was to lead him out of the commonplace routine of his daily life and plunge him into an uncharted sea of mystery, danger and sudden death!
Gerald Verner, was born John Robert Stuart Pringle on 31 January 1897 Ramsden Road, Balham - in the Registration District of Wandsworth in the Sub-District of Streatham, London. He was the son of John Charles Rochfort Douglas-Willan Stuart Pringle, a schoolteacher and Ellen Emma Stuart Pringle who performed on the stage as Miss Geraldine Verner. This is the origin of the surname he was later to adopt. At 17, John Robert entered the theatre business as a stage manager for Arthur Bourchier. He remained in the theatre as an acting stage manager until 1921 when that part of his life came to an end.
London was a tough place between the two world wars. Over the next three years he frequently found himself homeless, down-and-out in London, collecting dogends from the gutters, opening them up, and cramming the tobacco into a clay pipe. He turned to producing cabarets in London’s leading nightclubs where at the age of 26 he met and married his first wife, Patricia Sayles. When the nightclub boom died, he ended up broke and back on the street.
Nights sleeping rough on the embankment inspired him to write his first detective story The Clue of the Second Tooth in pencil on scraps of paper. The story was accepted and when he received £70—less his advance and the cost of typing—he said he had never recaptured the thrill of that moment. It seemed that he had learned to transfer his own bitter experiences of life in the raw to an enthralled audience hungry for detective fiction. The story appeared in the Sexton Blake Library No 105, on 31 August 1927, but as anonymous. Amalgamated Press did not credit any authors until June 1930.
Donald Stuart began writing regularly for The Sexton Blake Library. Hungry to capitalise on the new career opportunity that had opened for him he wrote a total of 44 stories. His style was heavily influenced by that of Edgar Wallace. He adopted the name Donald Stuart and not just writing as Donald Stuart; he became Donald Stuart. He opened a bank account in the name of Donald Stuart and brought the shutters down on his old life as Pringle.
In the 1930s Donald Stuart wrote 4 stories for the magazine Union Jack, 3 for The Thriller and 7 for Detective Weekly. With changed names of titles and the protagonists, many of these stories were recycled. He wrote six novels for the publisher Wright & Brown; The White Friar in 1934, followed by The Man Outside, and The Shadow, all published in the same year. The Man in The Dark, The Valley of Terror, and Midnight Murder, followed in 1935.
During 1928, Donald Stuart wrote his first stage play, no doubt harking back to his theatrical roots. It was called The Shadow and was a comedy thriller, produced by Mr. Nicholas Hannen at the Embassy Theatre in London. It featured distinguished comedian Bert Coote and his company. The Shadow was made into a film in 1933. It was published as a novel by Wright & Brown in 1934 and rewritten as Danger at Westways for the Sexton Blake Library, number 645, in November 1938.
In June 1930, he ambitiously formed his own production company Donald Stuart Productions Limited, to produce Sexton Blake, a bold detective melodrama with elaborate and expensive stage effects, including a bomb explosion, and a car smashing into a train at a level crossing. The production also featured an abduction in a real taxicab driving down Baker Street followed by a real motorcycle. There were three dress rehearsals to get all this technically right on the night. Taxi drivers were invited to the first dress rehearsal, detectives from Scotland Yard were invited to the second. The production never recouped its costs.
In an attempt to bury misfortune and start over Donald Stuart was relegated to the wings and, though he continued to write occasionally as Donald Stuart, he borrowing from his mother’s stage surname, and Gerald Verner took centre stage.
As Gerald Verner he wrote in parallel with Donald Stuart for The Thriller, Detective Weekly, Thriller Library, Thrilling Detective, and The Boy’s Friend-Bulls Eye Library. He began writing hardbacks for Wright & Brown, most of which began life as stories for The Sexton Blake Library. His output became so prolific that to avoid saturating the market with books under the Gerald Verner banner, he sought a second publisher—there was obviously a limit on just how many books Wright & Brown could accept in one year—The Modern Publishing Company at 6 Farringdon Avenue, London E.C.4., for whom he wrote five novels under the pseudonym Derwent Steele and another five under the pseudonym Nigel Vane, with an additional Nigel Vane story The Midnight Men for publishers Stanley Smith 59, New Oxford Street W.C.1.
Gerald Verner’s first book for Wright & Brown, 12-14 Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, London E.C.4, The Embankment Murder was published in 1933. Originally a Sexton Blake Library story by Donald Stuart called The Clue of the Second Tooth. This debut novel was swiftly followed by Alias the Ghost, The Black Hunchback, Black Skull, The Death Play, Phantom Hollow, and The Next to Die. Many authors sold their stories on to Wright & Brown, following publication in magazine form or newspaper serialisations to take advantage of the lending libraries, their main outlet. As the lending libraries declined after the war Wright & Brown declined with them eventually going into voluntary liquidation at the close of 1969 leaving no debt and having lost money for several years.
May 1935 saw an announcement in The Bookseller that The Prince of Wales has honoured a detective story writer, Gerald Verner, by graciously accepting a special Jubilee edition of fifteen of his novels. The set has been printed on special paper and bound in Jubilee blue with gilt lettering on the spine.
By 1936 at the age of 40, a veritable one-man factory of crime fiction, Gerald Verner was one of the most successful crime writers in the country having sold some one and a half million copies of his stories and having written 23 novels in five years as well as nearly 100 short stories, serials and plays. Like Edgar Wallace, he used to dictate his novels into a dictaphone.
1932 to the outbreak of the Second World War were Gerald Verner’s golden years of writing detective fiction. He was very popular. His novels were translated into over 35 languages, selling in hundreds of thousands in Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and in the USA published by Macaulay Company, New York. They were translated into Polish, Hungarian, Norwegian, French, Dutch, and in Germany by Eden-Verlag, Berlin. Stories were serialised across the world, like The Silver Horseshoe in The Australian Women’s Weekly. He also used to edit the quarterly magazine Crime.
Favourite detectives were Trevor Lowe—backed up by his assistant Arnold White— who featured in fourteen books, and Mr. Robert Budd, a fictional Superintendent of the C.I.D. Scotland Yard—with the melancholy Sergeant Leek—who featured in twenty-seven.
In July 1946, Gerald Verner married Isobel Ronald, in the registration district of North Eastern Surrey. Isobel was a war widow with two sons, Anthony James Ronald and James Jack Ronald. Their father was Jack Ronald, killed at El Alamein in 1942, and the adopted son of another famous and talented writer, James Ronald. The wedding records have entered both his names Gerald Verner and John R. S. Pringle. They took a coach trip to Switzerland as a honeymoon. In December 1949 they had a son, Christopher.
The war drew a line under this golden age of detective fiction and authors were forced to turn to radio and then to television for work. Gerald Verner began writing for radio, three eight-part radio serials, beginning with The Tipster in April 1948, followed by The Show Must Go On in August the same year. The Show Must Go On was subsequently turned into a book for Wright & Brown in 1950, and was made into a film in 1952 called Tread Softly, directed by David Macdonald and made by Albany Films. Noose for a Lady was broadcast in July 1950, and was made into a 73 min film in 1953 by Insignia Films Directed by Wolf Rilla. In 1992 the BFI initiated a search for some of the best lost British films. As part of this effort, they published a book Missing Believed Lost which listed and described 92 of the most sought-after films. Noose for a Lady is on that list. It has now been found and issued on DVD.
Slim Callaghan, a fictional British private detective in the American hard-boiled mode, was the central character in several popular Peter Cheyney novels including The Urgent Hangman and Dangerous Curves. From the book The Urgent Hangman Gerald Verner adapted a stage play called Meet Mr. Callaghan which opened May 1952 at the Garrick Theatre, London. The stage adaptation of Meet Mr. Callaghan was made into a film in 1954 by Eros Films Limited.
July 31st, 1956, saw his television serial play in seven episodes The Crimson Ramblers begin on London (Channel 9). Directed by Robert Evans, it had the distinction of being the first thriller serial on ITV. That same year, on the 4th September, Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero opened at the St James’s Theatre, London, dramatised by her and Gerald Verner. That year also heralded Sorcerer’s House for publishers Hutchinson, the sequel to Noose for a Lady, the first novel to feature amateur sleuth Simon Gale.
Following the successful publication of Sorcerer’s House, Gerald Verner began a follow-up third Simon Gale story to be titled, The Snark Was A Boojum. Its forthcoming publication was announced in the press, but unfortunately, this intriguing opus was never completed in his lifetime. It was to be in three parts, but he never completed part three. The reason was a messy divorce which had a bad effect upon his health preventing him from writing anything. In 2015, his son Chris Verner managed to complete the story and it was published by Ramble House, Vancleave, Mississippi that same year.
During April 1961, Gerald Verner had a meeting with Ian Hendry and Patrick Macnee to discuss scripts for a forthcoming TV series to be called The Avengers. He wrote Episode 18 called Double Danger, transmitted on Southern Television, Saturday 8 July 1961, directed by Roger Jenkins and produced by Leonard White.
In 1960 he continued writing again for Wight & Brown with a novel version of his TV serial The Crimson Ramblers, though with the slow death of the lending libraries, business was not as before. Seventeen books followed right up to 1967, some of them rewrites, when he switched back to Donald Stuart, to write 17 x 30 min Sexton Blake Case Histories for B.B.C. Radio, broadcast from August – December, starring William Franklyn as Sexton Blake.
Gerald Verner died of natural causes at Broadstairs, Kent, on 16th September, 1980. Following his death, his fiction slipped out of print, but the last decade has seen an astonishing revival of his books on both sides of the Atlantic.