Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Performer
Winifred Peck is the latest mystery author the Dean Street Press have recovered from obscurity. In the main she tended to write mainstream fiction and only has two mystery novels to her name, this one and Arrest the Bishop? (1949), in which her family background proved a useful source of material. Peck came from an ecclesiastical family with two of her four brothers going into the church, one of which is a much more well-known crime writer, Ronald Knox. She was also aunt to Penelope Fitzgerald, another writer, who also penned the mystery The Golden Child (1977). Martin Edwards who writes the introduction for DSP’s Peck mystery reprints proposes that it is a historical mystery, being set in Edwardian Edinburgh and during the story the narrator is keen to emphasise how different life was back then. Furthermore, like Ianthe Jerrold, Margery Allingham and Dorothy L Sayers, Peck can be seen, according to Curtis Evans, as ‘an early example of a Golden Age mystery that, in its shifting of emphasis from pure puzzle to the study of character and setting, helped mark the gradual shift from detective story to crime novel’ (Mystery File, 2010). I think this is something that is borne out in the novel, particularly in the beginning, though the story still contains features such as a challenge to the reader and the final chapter or so is focused on the explanation of the mystery.
Betty Morrison is the book’s narrator, who is wife to the Warrielaw family’s legal adviser. The Warrielaw family, like in many a Golden Age novel, is not a happy one, with there being much acrimony, feuding and factions. Head of the family is Jessica Warrielaw, who causes much displeasure through how she treats the family fortune and possessions, in particular how she sells family heirlooms to give the money to her nephew Neil Logan, whilst keeping her dependent sister, Mary, in an unnecessarily economised way. The latest discord is centred round the fairy jewel, a family heirloom which many other relations want and are furious that Jessica plans to sell it. As various tensions bubble and boil beneath the surface, the day for Jessica to go to London to see about arranging a buyer for the jewel arrives. A day which is gone into much detail, as the fairy jewel has disappeared and because as the weeks go by and no word is heard from Jessica, various relations begin to question what has happened to her. This is definitely a question with a very unpleasant answer, an answer which puts more than one of Jessica’s relations in an awkward position and it is up to the Morrisons and their friend Bob Stuart, an ex-policeman, to unravel the mystery.
Although Betty is a very well placed narrator and is able to receive information in a plausible way, I didn’t find her the most sympathetic of people. Her attitude to those with mental health issues is rather unappealing and instead finds it easier to sympathise for those within her own class and social sphere, however dislikeable such people are. Though in some ways this is a novel very much about its women and whilst reading this I felt this female focus was a critical and chastising one. For instance Jessica and Mary’s niece Rhoda Macpherson is judged harshly for being unemotional and her focus on work is deemed unfeminine, despite the fact she had to gain employment early in life in order to take care of her younger step sister. Conversely, another niece, Cora Murray, though not so harshly criticised, is portrayed in a negative way for her excessive emotionality and her feminine weakness is emphasised. Even our narrator receives criticism when she holds back information from her husband early on in the story, an act which is seen as her defying her husband’s authority. For most of the novel she is merely the readers’ eyes and ears, allowed to follow the male characters in the investigation as a means of keeping her away from the local gossips. Yet she does play an important and at times subversive role in the concluding chapters of the novel. Additionally it has to be said that there is quite an array of female mental instability in the book and I did feel like it was a trope overused for plot purposes, as such instability is recorded by non-sufferers and there is no way of gaining the sufferers’ points of view.
Peck definitely has an accomplished writing style and her skill evoking an earlier era is strong, bringing this period to life. Yet I am not sure the mystery genre is her strongest metier, though of course I can only base this opinion on the one book. I wouldn’t say the challenge to the reader is unfair, as it is possible to pick the guilty party as I did, yet I wouldn’t say it was because of the clues left for the reader. They are there but I felt they were a little lost in the slow pace of the book. I think I selected the guilty party due to my knowledge of genre tropes and conventions, as opposed to using specific clues. Once you read the detailed solution you can of course see where the clues were, but personally I wasn’t as satisfied with the choice of guilty party as I wanted to be. I also think I found it hard to warm to the characters, possibly because the narrator keeps us at arm’s length from some of them, though they are well-drawn and psychologically true. I think I am undecided about Peck as a writer and I wonder whether her second and final mystery novel might be stronger due to the choice of milieu.