Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Graveyard
Whitechurch is a golden age detective fiction writer I have known about for a while but haven’t tried his work until today. The maxim of write what you know seems to apply in the case of Whitechurch who trained to be a priest, as he often wrote mystery novels featuring clerical characters, which manage to get themselves involved in criminal cases.
The foreword to this work by Whitechurch looks at how he went about writing Crime at Diana’s Pool (1926). He writes that:
‘In most detective stories the author knows exactly what the end is going to be, and writes up to that end from the beginning. But, in reality, the solver of a problem in criminology has to begin at the beginning, without knowing the end […] I have tried to follow this method in the construction of the following story. To begin with I had no plot. When I had written the first chapter I did not know why the crime had been committed, who had done it, or how it was done. Then, with an open mind, I picked up the clues which seemed to show themselves, and found, as I went on, their bearing on the problem. In many respects the story appeared to work itself out to that inevitable conclusion about which, to begin with, I was in entire ignorance.’
What interested me the most though was that he closed his foreword wondering whether people reading his first chapter would have come up with the same subsequent plotline as he did. This got me thinking, especially once I had read the book, as I am not sure many people would have gone with the plot he chose. Therefore I have decided to share the key points of the first chapter with you and it would be great to see based on these points what sort of plot everyone comes up with.
Point 1: Felix Nayland and his unmarried sister cause quite the stir when they move in to The Pleasaunce at Coppleswick, with other inhabitants wondering whether they are from the right set and therefore entitled to a social visit.
Point 2: Felix and his sister host a garden party, hiring a band.
Point 3: Two specific characters brought to our attention are the Chief Constable, Major Challow and Reverend Westerham, the local vicar, whose eyes are said to have ‘an occasional twinkle in them.’ Challow wishes to have a private chat with the vicar about a parishioner. They arrange to talk at a later date.
Point 4: Felix shows off a part of his garden where he has a pool, named Diana’s. This amuses one of the guests greatly, as her name is also Diana.
Point 5: Rain brings the party in doors.
Point 6: Felix Nayland is disturbed when he sees a member of the band looking at his collection of curiosities. Is it the action or the person themselves who has caused this perturbed feeling?
Point 7: Felix and the band member disappear during the concert, but only one of them is found afterwards: Felix, who is face down in his garden pool, with a knife in his back.
What story would you come up with?
In Whitechurch’s story the investigation begins by focusing on the musician as the prime suspect. In many ways it seems an easy case to solve. But there are one or two peculiarities such as why is the victim wearing the prime suspect’s jacket. Extra footprints, missing items and a false beard also muddy the trail. Westerham is one of the first people to find the body and being friends with Chief Constable also means he gets to be a bit more involved in the investigation. His excellent memory is one of his strongest assets, though his heart may be the weakest when it seems like the woman he loves, is hiding something about the party.
I think Whitechurch has a very matter of fact style, though sometimes he gives a little too much detail about prosaic actions. No one needs two paragraphs on someone getting their fingerprints taken. He may have a vicar character but his writing does not really lean towards the spiritual or philosophical in the way Chesterton’s Father Brown stories do at times. This is not a mystery with lots of suspects and motives, as for a long time the police are focused on the musician and it is only later on that others are considered. Consequently I think the characterisation suffered as there isn’t a core set of characters or suspects we get to know through police interviews and suspects discussing the case amongst themselves and Felix as a person is very much the same enigma at the end of the story as he was at the beginning. The vicar is the character we get to know the best and it has been noted in other reviews that it is a shame this is his only fictional outing. Dialogue is a little artificial in some characters with the Chief Constable finishing most sentences with ‘-what!’ and there are other characters who when asked how they are, reply ‘topping.’ Furthermore, at times, stereotypical responses to discussing foreigners also creep into the text.
Although there are opportunities for guessing what is going on, I think the reader could have had more material to work with. The one man hunt which goes on for a while prohibits this. There is also a little too much reliance on backstory or telling rather than showing in my opinion. The solution, though being a surprise, was not playing fair with the reader. The vicar had a number of clues we did not and the book ends with a witness statement someone gives right at the end, not realising of course how significant what they saw was. So I think on the whole I might not have read Whitechurch’s best work. Has he written any really good ones? Personally I wonder whether a little more planning in his story might have made this a stronger read.