The last couple of days have been a bit fraught, hence this review being a little delayed, (I did end up reading the second half of this book with an injured chick on my knee). Thankfully though, Peck’s novel fitted the mood I was in and in keeping with blog traditions, it is another Christmas mystery which I have read out of season.
Winifred Peck was the sister of Ronald Knox and due to having a number of exceptional siblings, it seems she has been overlooked. She only wrote two mystery novels, this being her second. I reviewed her first mystery novel, The Warrielaw Jewel (1933), last year on the blog. Given Peck’s family background, it is not surprising that she depicts the religious life and milieu well. Though the dedication at the beginning of the story indicates that this second mystery novel was also contributed to by Peck’s husband. Wittily written I have enclosed a picture of the dedication in full:
This mystery is set at the Bishop of Evelake’s Palace, (circa 1920), and takes place over 3-4 days. On the first night we have the arrival of a number of guests. Some are expected as there is to be an ordination service, whilst others are not – namely the Bishop’s wild and footloose daughter Judith and Thomas Ulder, a parson who has been a thorn in the Bishop’s side for a long time. The Bishop and his cohorts thought they had dealt with Ulder years ago, minimising scandal by giving him a small inconsequential living elsewhere. However Ulder is keen to go to America and to go with a substantial amount of cash. He is of course a blackmailer and he has his sights not only on the Bishop, (due to an indiscretion of Judith’s), but also on a number of other members in the church community. Yet when Ulder arrives he collapses, his poor heart not standing up to his heavy drinking. The doctor plans to move him to a hospital the following day. But of course we all know he won’t be going… Morphine poisoning finishes him off and inevitably a whole swathe of people visited him the last night he was alive. Even worse for the Bishop and his establishment is the Chief Constable who comes to investigate, who bears a grudge against the Bishop and his creed. Luckily for the Bishop amongst his guests is Dick Marlin, who is planning on becoming part of the Church Militant, but during the war worked in Military Intelligence.
Whilst this is by no means a perfect mystery story, (though my reading circumstances weren’t the best to be fair), this was definitely a delightfully entertaining novel. The characters played a major part in this. Peck is very good at describing the internal states of her characters, such as with the Bishop for instance:
‘The Bishop would have diagnosed his state of mind as a want of consistent grace rather than dignifying himself as a split personality, but there was indeed a hidden conflict between the stately ascetic divine revered by his diocese and wife, and the terrified heart, haunted by memories, beset by future fears, which beat beneath his episcopal garb.’
The Bishop’s wife and Marlin also make for very entertaining characters, though of course for different reasons. Marlin is a likeable clerical sleuth, who is a man of action, but also takes time to consider the deeper aspects to the case, musing on the emotions behind crimes for example. Unlike Father Brown, he does not hide his capabilities behind an innocent/simple-minded demeanour, though of course this does lead to painful consequences later on in the story. The reader also even feels sympathy for the less than popular Chief Constable, who is faced with a lot of characters hiding information from him and trying to use their church status/positions as shields against police investigation.
One line which struck me particularly in this story, perhaps due to my feeling a bit stressed at the moment was: ‘For those who have lived through a war escapism is indeed not a vice nor a fine art but a necessity.’ Whilst I have by no means been through a war in the last couple of days, Peck’s novel has been a much needed tonic to take my mind off things and in that respect was ‘a necessity.’
So all in all this is a warm and light hearted tale, with an appealing setting and cast of characters and would make ideal reading for by an open fire, on a cold wintery day.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Gold Card): Damsel in Distress