Coachwhip Publications have released a mystery omnibus for this writer, containing not two, but three novels by her! The three titles included are: Murder Takes the Veil (1950), Murder at St. Dennis (1952) and Sister Simon’s Murder Case (1959). Today’s review will be dealing with the first of these, and I hope to make my way around to the other two in the coming weeks.
Margaret Ann Hubbard (1909-1992) is not an author I have come across before. After deciding that school teaching was not for her, she turned her hand to writing, (encouraged by her mother). She started out writing plays for children and then branched out into children’s fiction and non-fiction. In 1950 she wrote her first adult mystery novel and she continued writing until 1966, which saw her last published mystery novel, Step Softly on My Grave.
The setting of our mystery is a college for girls run by nuns, which you can see in the beautiful map pictured in this review. To try and increase enrolment figures Mother Theodore employs three lay teachers; an artist named Torvaldsen, a successful writer called Crispin Archer and an athletics instructor by the name of Franz Eric. She is worried that the handsome appearances of the two younger teachers will cause havoc amongst the female students. Yet it seems one of these instructors will be creating more than chaos…
One of the senior year students is Trillium Pierce. On an errand to the guest house, where the three male teachers are staying, she discovers a Billiken with identifying marks in their accommodation which recalls a terrible time from her past. Many years ago, a man called Jem was interested in her mother and was told by Trill’s father to desist in giving her mother gifts, such as this Billiken. The man, who she never saw, left taking the gift with him and some time later her father is said to have committed suicide. Shortly after completing her errand, Trill reads her mother’s latest letter. In it she warns Trill that she will have to disappear as Jem is on her trail and she is determined to find the evidence which will prove that Jem murdered Trill’s father. Of course, Trill is terrified at this point realising that Jem must be one of the new instructors, but which one is he? Even worse she fears her very uncommon name will alert Jem to her presence. Unfortunately, Trill’s mother tells her that she must tell nobody about any of this and so she tries to go it alone… This decision sparks off a sequence of violent events which tear their way through the college, but will the local Sheriff be able to figure out what is going on without Trill’s help?
Now witnesses withholding information is nothing new in mystery fiction. You could even argue that without it, mystery novels would be an awful lot shorter. However, I fear Trill takes her reticence to a whole new level and arguably it is the root cause of the deaths in the book – so she is morally culpable to say the least. We learn what Trill is told in the letter early on in the book, so we see the subsequent plot shaped and directed by Trill’s refusal to reveal what she knows. The Sheriff and Mother Theodore get wise to her holding back on them, yet they remain throughout unable, or unwilling, to prise any information out of her. Consequently, they have to find out what she knows through other sources which takes up a lot of the remaining page time, whilst “Jem” roams among them, eager to snuff out anyone who may give him away. This means the focus of most of their investigation is on what Trill knows rather than on finding out who Jem is. The answer to that query is unfolded during a dramatic stormy and rainy night, which is suitably dramatic. Intriguingly characters retrospectively twig why they should have identified Jem sooner, and the narrative is shown through this to have given the reader clues. What you want from your mystery novel will determine how you respond to Trill’s extensive “vow” of silence.
Nevertheless, Hubbard does present the reader with a suitably atmospheric mystery. The college architecture lends itself to night-time drama and the decision to have the killer disguise themselves in a nun’s habit also adds to the tension of the piece.
This is not an author I am going to give up on, just yet, as there are a number of elements I enjoyed in this book and I would like to see Hubbard work with a different plot and cast of characters, which doesn’t involve a Trill. In particular I am especially interested in trying Sister Simon’s Murder Case, as an amateur sleuthing nun appeals to me, so I might try that one next.
Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip Publications)