I decided to give this book a chance after coming across it in Barter Books this summer, partially because of such an unusual author’s name. Osmington Mills, whilst also being the name for a coastal hamlet in Dorset, was also the penname for Vivian Collin Brooks, who was born in 1922 and died in 2002. I am indebted to the website Mystery Files for what little information there is on this author, who wrote between 15-20 novels, based on the differing information I read online. Inspector Baker was one of her series detectives and he does indeed star in this particular story, but more on that later. Whilst Mills’ work does employ tropes of earlier crime fiction such as people snow bound in a remote area, the writing has a 50s feel, with its “Teddy boy” character and his girlfriend, as well as how the text interacts with the issue of politics and government.
However back to Stairway to Murder, which sees Charles Alingham and his companion Geoffrey Clive, regretting their choice of ride when they decided to hitch a lift with the “plutocrat” and either his young secretary or young wife, the former of which autocratically taking a short cut, only to get them stuck in a snow drift on the wrong road in a very remote area of Yorkshire. With no other choice they make their way to the nearest pub, where other stranded motorists have taken refuge. Whilst the reader may have their suspicions about the plutocrat and his female companion, the biggest mystery concerns our two protagonists. They are low on money and quickly spin a story to the pub owner in order to stay, yet are they as innocent as they first seem? Perhaps vying for second place on the suspicious characters list are three later arrivals, one of which definitely giving the impression of being in the other two men’s power. What is going on here? However it is the least suspicious character who is murdered during the night, an elderly Welsh woman, who makes that classic error of publically hinting of secret knowledge about one of the inhabitants of the pub. Of course the circle of suspects is a closed one due to the snow. A working telephone line though means Inspector Baker is soon able to look up his various suspects, something at least one person is far from happy about. But what are they prepared to do about it?
This story is one of those rare incidences of an earlier crime fiction novel being set in the North of England. Of course the selection of Yorkshire is based on remoteness and heavy snowfall. The number of Yorkshire characters though is surprisingly limited, with the majority of characters being those who have come from elsewhere. This does lead to the expression of some odd ideas about what Northern people are like…
‘because in “the North”, people lived a medieval, tribal life, and were constantly giving overwhelming hospitality to relatives who turned up in droves to the frequent family weddings, christenings and funerals.’
Granted being portrayed as hospital is nice, but medieval is perhaps stretching it a bit? However we do get an endearing pet sheep who later on in the book has an entertaining scene of bathos to give us. Once we get our victim the story concentrates on Baker and his assistant uncovering the red herrings in the case as for various reasons the suspects, including our protagonists, are decidedly less than honest about themselves and their movements on the night in the question. It is at the point when a lot of evasion and deception has been cleared away that Mills throws in a surprise which complicates the case further. Given the number of red herrings involved in this story the reader is liable to come a cropper on at least one of them, as a few of them are deceptively life like, often burying a nugget of truth at the centre of the lies. I found just as you are getting perhaps too comfortable with the story, following dare I say some predictable narrative lines, Mills pushes the story onto a different track. Her means of doing this I enjoyed, yet the solution which has to follow this altered course was a bit too hurried for my liking. The discrepancy in the evidence which is supposed to give the culprit away is flimsy and only seems less so when it is bolstered by the extra information the police get off the telephone, off the page. This is a real shame as I feel Mills is one of those writers who might not knock your socks off but is perfect for idly away an afternoon or an evening. I should also say that whilst my depiction of this book may make it seem fairly familiar, Mills does produce some interesting variations on the snow bound country abode mystery, with certain narrative strands being far from expected, which in turn give the book a rather unique ending. I’ll say no more…