I first encountered Lee’s work last year when I reviewed his earlier novel Sheep’s Clothing (1955), which I really enjoyed. Mystery fiction involving the work of the Bronte sister may seem fairly niche, but this is not the only one, as earlier this year I took a look at The Missing Bronte (1983) by Robert Barnard. Though the setting in Lee’s book soon extends beyond the Yorkshire town of Haworth, taking in Cambridge and Stratford on Avon.
It all commences with an American man arriving in Haworth, seemingly there to look at all things Bronte related. Yet the day after he arrives he turns up dead in an empty shop. A police investigation begins, leading the police to an authority on the Bronte family called Dr Appleby, a man who seems very on edge for someone who professes to know nothing about the case. Yet the reader is not limited to only one killing, as Lee treats her readers to a further two and it doesn’t take Sherlock to realise that in some way they are all interlinked. Appleby certainly catches on this and duly disappears: guilty conscience or fearing for his life? Like Miss Marple, Miss Hogg gets involved in the case through a friend of a friend and in this story she also brings along her somewhat empty headed friend Milly. Expect car chases, near death experiences and an awful lot of afternoon teas…
If I had to sum up Miss Hogg and her friend Milly and their part in the story, I’d have to say that their approach to sleuthing is as though Bunty was taking a crack at detective work. Miss Hogg by herself in a book presents a much more professional and competent impression, but in this tale her sidekick somewhat drags her down into infantilism, with Milly being far more interested in getting her quota of cakes and ices buns than she in finding the killer. Their co-opting of two undergraduates to tail a suspect feels incredibly corny and I don’t feel we are supposed to take them too seriously. For instance Milly’s contribution to a conversation on the possibility of having dyed their beard as a form of disguise is this: ‘I tried a blue rinse a month or two ago […] and I just didn’t dare go to church on Sunday. I think it was too strong or something.’ Equally I am sure Moira at Clothes in Books could find me a fab picture to portray Milly’s unique style in clothes: ‘Milly [was] in her pink taffeta which was never out of fashion as it had never been in.’ Miss Hogg’s success in sleuthing does seem to rely a lot more on luck than most mystery readers will like. After all she does say that: ‘I’m no good at bloodstains and foot-prints and all that sort of thing. I leave all that to the police. All I can do is work out the motive and then find whom it leads to.’ I think if this book was written and/or set in an earlier time period Miss Hogg’s approach to sleuthing would draw fewer questions, but in the 1950s it feels in a way more inappropriate or dare I say it even anachronistic.
However Lee’s writing style is well-polished as ever from a description on someone’s hoovering: ‘Shortly afterwards Mrs Holly went into action, producing all the sound effects of a Stratford production of King Lear,’ to the horror a money grasping landlady expresses when she realises that a murder victim had their throat cut on her fitted carpet, the emphasis of course being on the damaged carpet.
So to be honest I quite surprised myself about how much less I enjoyed this book, considering how much I enjoyed the first one. Whilst I still love the writing style as much as last time, I think I am somewhat questioning the quality of the mystery element.
See also: Moira at Clothes in Books has also review this title here.