This is quite a momentous read for me, as it is the first new to me White novel I have been able to get my hands on for a reasonable price since 2016. Sad I know, but at least this book didn’t disappoint.
Our setting is a country village, which would definitely apply for the most idyllic village award, if there was such a one. From the get go we are told that the village presents a polished veneer, ‘private lives were shielded by drawn blinds’ and I absolutely love the line that ‘scandal [was] nearly as rare as a unicorn.’ Within it is Spout Manor, owned by queen bee spinster, Decima Asprey, the narrator referring to the other villagers as her ‘subjects.’ Although philanthropic, is there a steely note to her beneficence? An outsider jokes around with what the villagers’ are really like, hypothesising and imagining Asprey’s secret past, the local children’s author’s hidden drink problem, amongst other scandalous ideas. Yet it seems someone else in the village has had similar ideas, though theirs has led to that most awful of things: a poisoned pen letter. What unfolds is no sudden explosion of letters, but a slow release of poison, letter by letter, like an infection which soon begins to disintegrate the social life of the village, as rifts and misunderstandings fester. Death punctures the narrative, from time to time, until eventually the local reverend writes to an old friend, who just so happens to be an idle, rich, amateur sleuth, called Ignatius Brown. Can he solve the mystery before the village falls apart?
Ordinarily mystery novelists don’t often have their entire mystery plot revolve around poison pen letters. Use them as background and as leverage for a murder yes, but have them as the sole focus, decidedly no. Perhaps this is because poison pen letters in and of themselves do not always command the same amount of reader attention, as murder does. Yet White certainly provides us with one of the exceptions to the rule. How you ask?
Well firstly she provides a masterclass in showing how mistrust and fear spreads around the village, to the extent of fear itself becoming almost like a character in its own right. I would go as far as saying that she outstrips Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, in this regard. Secondly, White has such a good knack for creating memorable lines. I’ve already mentioned one favourite above, but another has to be this one, describing Ignatius’ motoring activities in the village:
‘Insignificant as a monkey on a milk-float, he steered his glittering monster through the winding lanes, with Charles Dickens [the reverend’s dog] – who had acquired a luxury complex – for passenger.’
The minds of my puzzle obsessed blog readers will be put to rest with my third reason White knocks it out of the park with this novel and that is the puzzle she presents her readers with, because it is good, really good. This is not something I was struck with immediately but it is definitely an aspect of the plot which gains momentum as the story unfolds. The strength of the puzzle of course relies on the characters she creates as she well and truly leads the reader up the garden path in this regard and White launches more than one well aimed red herring at the reader, as well as several sneaky clues which I completely missed, but are there in plain sight. I was quite surprised really by how intricate and yet how plausible the final solution is, especially given the poison pen focus. I would rate this as one of White’s best novels, which makes it a shame that it is much less well known, a timely reprint is definitely called for. A copy of this, at the moment, will set you back around £10-15 in hard copy, but if you are a kindle user you will get this book far more cheaply.
On a final note if you get the edition shown in the post, beware that the blurb on the back is quite misleading and distortive. Like other White novels, publishers have been keen to make full use of any female protagonists, to the extent of making their roles far more central to the story than they actually are.