This author was brought to my attention by the Grey Ladies Press. Austin Lee was a clergyman and a maverick one at that, never staying in a position for long and the tongue in cheek approach to depicting the clergy in this book may stem from his own experiences. Sheep’s Clothing (1955) begins with Flora Hogg embarking on a new career as a private investigator, after the death of her father, who was a superintendent, though her past experience as a teacher comes in handy for her new role, as like Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver, Flora Hogg can quickly spot childish lies and she exerts a natural authority at times. Her first case involves strange goings on in Emily Dewdney’s house. Items in her old father’s library are going missing or are being disarranged. Flora Hogg wonders whether there may be something of value in the library that someone is trying to find. Dewdney’s father initially travelled the world as an epigraphist, but he soon turned his attention to discovering rare ancient manuscripts. He was on such a trip in Armenia when he died of a fever, his luggage returned home yet never looked at. It seems like Flora Hogg may be onto something as there suddenly seems to be a lot of interest in Dewdney’s father, with three different people wanting to write a biography on him (and therefore wanting access to his library), amongst others.
One such person interested in Dewdney’s father is Bishop Tucson, yet events take a dramatic turn in the investigation when one night he is found murdered in Dewdney’s library. Both DI Bruce and Flora Hogg take on the case, which has more than one surprise for them, the primary one being the real identity of the victim. Yet there is a plethora of shifty suspects, who know more than they say about what is in Dewdney’s library. A letter from Dewdney’s father collected in a new biography of his patron may well hold the key and for brief moments there is a sedate Indiana Jones feel. Whatever is being sought, it has not been found yet, meaning that Flora Hogg may get more than she bargained for when she began her career in detection.
On the whole this is definitely a book I enjoyed reading. Lee has an engaging narrative style which has moments of gentle comedy, which are not overdone. His style also allows the reader to view the story from different character point of views (third person omniscient), meaning information about the case is pieced together from different sources, which worked effectively. This is also a story where the mystery balances the things which you can figure out about the case, with things which you cannot, and I felt it was balanced just right. I don’t enjoy mysteries as much when I can solve the entire case miles ahead of the sleuth, but then I don’t always enjoy mysteries where I can’t solve any of it, as sometimes the reason for this is because too much information is withheld or the crime itself is too technical. There is also a good pace in this story and I would definitely be interested in reading more of Lee’s books.
Flora Hogg is an interesting character as the death of her father is in many ways a release for her from having to conform to traditional expectations of women and she no longer has to repress her more adventurous side. This suppression of her nature is capsulated in the opening lines of the story:
‘Her Christian name she owed to the romantic temperament of her mother… a temperament which Flora had in no small measure inherited, though it had remained undiscovered by the majority of the pupils at the Surrey County school…’
Moreover, although we are never told explicitly why Flora chooses to become a private investigator, it does become apparent why she didn’t choose to become one sooner:
‘The Superintendent had believed that the woman’s only place was the home, ministering to the comforts of the male of the species, though he had grudgingly allowed that teaching was a less unsuitable profession than most.’
I liked Flora Hogg’s no nonsense attitude and although I was a little concerned initially that she wouldn’t end up doing much detective work, her involvement in the case after the murder picks up and she becomes much more involved in uncovering information. Although I do think the narrative tries to emphasise the luck factor in her success, which perhaps undermines her role as a rational detective a little, but not so much that the reading experience is diminished.
Characterisation is a strong element of this book and I think Reverend Earwicker and his family are memorably portrayed, made distinct from one another in a concise yet effective way in their disparate responses to the arrival of Bishop Tucson. These are also moments where the story’s gentle comedy is visible. Detective fiction often has excelsior, information which gives a book a certain theme, such as the campanology in Sayers’ Nine Tailors (1934). In this book it intrigued me that the excelsior had quite a bit of range spanning both ancient and modern times, which I think came across in the style of the book, as it commences in quite a traditional way, but as we near the end of the book a much stronger 1950s flavour comes through.
I think my only niggle with this book is that the narrative steers away from, let’s call it X, which is intrinsic to the solution, only allowing the reader access at the very end of the book. Part of me felt this was a little unfair but I can also see how maybe for Lee this was the easiest way of maintaining the mystery for longer.
Finally Flora Hogg’s response to having a gun pulled out on her:
‘I think that’s rather rude.’