A centenary of 2019 that most of us will have so far missed – and understandably – is that of the publication of J.S Fletcher’s mystery story The Middle Temple Murder. Many will be entirely unfamiliar with the name of the author, among whom I am not ashamed to admit was once numbered myself.

The first ray of light to illumine the gloom and convert the obscurity concerning Fletcher’s writing career – to paraphrase Charles Dickens in The Pickwick Papers – came for me with the arrival in the post of a copy of his book in a handsome 100th anniversary edition published by HarperCollins.

How handsome can be judged from the dust jacket reproduced on this page. This makes use of the artwork used when it appeared as part of Collins’s Detective Story Club, complete with its trademark logo, of ‘The Man With The Gun’.

Books in the series have been steadily appearing for the past year or so, modestly priced at £9.99. I have a growing collection of them, and they look very well on my shelves, a demonstration – as Anthony Powell had it in the title of his novel – that Books Do Furnish a Room.

I find it curious, incidentally, glancing at my photograph of the volumes, to find they are assembled, with no conscious effort on my part, so that those with titles ending ‘Mystery’, ‘Syndicate’ and ‘Murder’ are side by side (and there’s a third ‘Murder’ out of view).

But content matters more than covers, and in The Middle Temple Murder, I am delighted to report, Fletcher supplies a novel very satisfactory on many counts, not least for the direct unfussiness of its writing.

The Halifax-born (1863) author – his father was a local vicar – worked as a journalist (notably on the Yorkshire Post), which doubtless accounts for the sharpness of his prose.

It certainly explains the precision with which he chronicles the inky profession, both in this book and others I later came to read.

His hero here is a young sub-editor on the fictional Watchman newspaper, Frank Spargo, who walking home from Fleet Street late one night chances upon the body of en elderly gentleman bludgeoned to death at the entrance to barristers’ chambers in the Middle Temple (where an old friend of mine still has a handsome ‘set’).

Thereafter, he joins in the investigation of the murder, publishing his findings in the Watchman and encouraging his readers to come forward with information. It is a delicious conceit in this and other Fletcher books that everyone devours what the day’s newspapers contain.

It is a wonderful read, whose qualities are well summed up in an introductory essay by Nigel Moss, a detective fiction historian.

He writes: “ The plot is well constructed, complex and entertaining. The diverse storyline threads and multi-dimensional sub-plots are akin to the pieces of a complicated jigsaw puzzle; eventually slotting together to form a pleasing symmetry and reveal an intricate and intriguing mystery.

“Colourful new minor characters are introduced at different stages, and fresh clues regularly emerge during the investigation to set the story off in a new direction, in the vein of a pursuit thriller.”

Indeed so. The novel put me very much in mind of John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, not least for its always accurate topographical detail. Fletcher’s writing career began, in fact, with books on Yorkshire landscape and history.

The Middle Temple Murder was his first big hit as a detective story writer, not just in Britain but in America too where President Woodrow Wilson called it the best novel he had read in the genre. His popularity with presidents was maintained and several of his books were among the summer vacation reading in 1934 for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

There were many to chose from by then, for his output was prodigious, three adventures a year at least, leading some critics to refer to the ‘Fletcher Factory’ or ‘Fletcher Mill’.

Since discovering him a couple of months ago, I have read perhaps a dozen of them in a boxed set which I downloaded on to my Kindle for the princely sum (I think) of 50p.

They accord, most of them, to the style outlined above by Mr Moss. Their titles are, for me, part of their charm: my tally so far has included Dead Men’s Money, The Chestermarke Instinct, The Herapath Property, The Talleyrand Maxim, The Root of All Evil, The Middle of Things and The Charing Cross Mystery (this last particularly good).

The world of journalism features in many of them, more captivating in a way because it is a lost world, which I vividly recall.

Precisely 50 years after Frank Spargo set out to solve The Middle Temple Murder, I began my career as a pressman. The daily routines and sights I experienced in 1969 had much more in common (though there were no bludgeoned corpses!) with those of 1919 than anything a reporter of 2019 is likely to find on his or her beat.