Sheila Pim (1909-1995), is an Irish writer who I haven’t read in a while, having read her first mystery novel, Common or Garden Crime (1945), a few years ago. Aside from that novel and the one I am reviewing today, Pim only wrote two other definite mystery novels called Creeping Venom (1946) and A Hive of Suspects (1952). Looking at the titles you would not be surprised that the writer had an interest in gardening, though in the case of this novel gardening as a theme only crops up in a minor capacity. Her life was rather dictated to by the needs of her family such as ailing parents and also a younger brother who was born disabled, which meant she had to curtail her university education. In fact her mystery writing, according to herself, came out of her father’s enjoyment of thrillers and his inability to access many of them after the war. That said I don’t think any of her mystery novels could be classed as remotely like thrillers so we’ll never know what Pim’s father thought of her works. After her various family members died she did a lot of work for the Historical Society of the Religious Order of Friends and she also did a lot for Irish Travellers, often taking in Traveller children and she even adopted one family.
A Brush with Death (1950) is predominately set in Dublin and the world of art and focuses on one family, the Fennellies. Hester Fennelly is perturbed by a letter from her artist brother Fergus, who she has not seen for many years and who is asking to stay at her home for a while due to his ill health, which his doctor has told him is being caused by irregular amounts of arsenic getting into his system. With no one else suffering from such poisoning, it seems like someone is trying to bump him off. Dubious as to how ill he really is Hester is surprised by how sick he is when he arrives. Although he does begin to get better, he is a difficult invalid to the say the least, even causing one of the servants to give notice after throwing a paint stained sponge at her face. Yet just as his health seems to be improving he suffers from another near fatal attack of poisoning. However, it is not just a case of trying to figure out who is doing the poisoning, but also how the poison is being administered, with food being a source quickly ruled out. There is a range of possible suspects including Fergus’ wife, who seems to be flirting with their landlord Lord Kilskour and also his once art student Paddy Purtill. Another mysterious aspect of the case is Fergus’ reluctance to have the police involved and looking at the actions of those close to him it seems there is definitely something he wants to hide. Is this hidden misdemeanour apart of the case or just a red herring?
I think one thing this story has told is that Pim might have been more suited to writing non genre specific fiction, as her narrative style and adeptness at portraying and developing characters are very strong and it is these elements which saved this read. Characters are not always easy to pin down and those who seem annoying initially may turn out more sympathetically later on. Yet when it comes to creating a mystery based story Pim’s skill does show some weaknesses. For instance how the poison is administered is one of the story’s biggest puzzles, yet the way the truth is held from the reader feels a bit of a cheat and is consequently disappointing. Moreover, I think the mode of hiding the truth in this respect had a negative effect on the pace of the story. I also think the narrative itself didn’t give much away about the identity of the would be poisoner so the reader, well this one at any rate, didn’t feel like it had much of a chance of guessing who had done it. This was a shame as the central premise of the book had a lot of promise, which was not entirely realised and I also thought the choice of ending, which avoids comfortable closure was good and would have been even better if Pim had written a better police investigation which had more clues to go on and wasn’t so hampered with the issue of how the arsenic was given. So I’m not sure whether to recommend this or not. In terms of the narrative style and the characters there is a lot to enjoy, but I think die hard mystery fans should probably give this a miss. From what I can remember of Common or Garden Crime, which has a female amateur sleuth, it is the better of the two, so it may be a case of trying one of her other mystery novels.