April’s reading has not been my most successful in terms of finding quality reads, so I decided to turn to a favourite author of mine: June Wright. For the past few years, buying and reading the next June Wright reprint, has been an annual treat, so I hoped the latest title to be reissued, Wright’s penultimate mystery, would continue this trend.
‘Mother Paul returns to her sleuthing ways in June Wright’s second mystery featuring the inimitable nun detective. In the sequel to Reservation for Murder, Mother Paul takes up a new position as warden of a student hall of residence at the University of Melbourne in the early 1960s. No sooner has Judith Mornane arrived on campus than she startles her fellow residents by announcing her intention to discover the murderer of her sister, who disappeared a year earlier. Mother Paul is drawn to investigate what happened to Judith’s sister – did she run off for reasons best known to herself, as the police concluded, or could she really have been murdered? Was her disappearance perhaps linked to a tragedy that occurred around the same time – the accidental drowning in her bathtub of the wife of one of the college’s professors? Was that drowning in fact as accidental as the official investigation suggested? Mother Paul believes the two events are somehow connected, and a further tragedy convinces her that a particularly cruel and clever murderer is still at work within the college. She is not above a little subterfuge in the interest of discovering the truth and moves her colleagues, the students, and even the police around like figures on a chessboard until finally, amid high drama, the murderer is revealed.’
This is the second of three mysteries starring Mother Paul; her creation having been inspired by an interview the author had with fellow mystery writer Arthur Upfield. Faculty of Murder, as the title suggests, is set in an academic environment and June Wright openly said that Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935) was a key influence on its production. Despite not having been to university herself, Wright had friends who worked at Melbourne university and in her younger days, she went to college dances. Lucy Sussex, who wrote the introduction to this reprint, opines that ‘though Wright mixed rigorous research with experience for her books, the level of detail in Faculty of Murder indicates an informed source, someone who knew the academic gossip.’ Having now read the book I think this sounds likely, as the setting is vibrant and a joy to read about and the author makes effective use of features of university life within the crimes Mother Paul investigates.
The opening chapter, on the surface, is a straightforward and well-executed drip feeding of information surrounding the disappearance of Maureen Mornane, Judith’s sister. Elizabeth Drew is also introduced to us, a college tutor, and it becomes clear that she is going to be a conduit-like character, who funnels information to Mother Paul, but also circulates information more widely within the pool of characters. However, it is only now, just thinking about the early chapters, that I realise that Wright is a little bit sneaky. We encounter several staff members and students, and in the main you assume the majority will fall into the background pretty quickly. Yet by the end of the mystery, you realise how these seemingly minor characters became much more prominent, and in ways you didn’t expect them to.
The unsolved disappearance of Maureen might seem like a tame cold case to hang a whole novel on, but in fact the writer has done a brilliant job at constructing a much bigger, yet still credible series of crimes. Furthermore, the leads Mother Paul has to go on initially, balance being tangible enough that she has some clear actions to take, without being too tangible that it looks like the police have been incompetent or negligent.
Although Judith Mornane declares at the close of chapter 1 her intention to solve what she believes to be her sister’s murder, she ultimately does not fulfil this role. Nevertheless, I think this was a wise choice as it reduces the potential for HIBK components to derail the plot, as unfortunately young female amateur sleuths could be railroaded into such a narrative arc in earlier classic crime fiction. Furthermore, looking back at the students in this book, they came across to me as more childlike in a way, or like attendees of St Trinians in some cases. Consequently, their background position in the investigation felt appropriate and as though the sleuthing was left to the adults.
Perhaps the period Wright was composing her mystery novel in, partially contributed to this girl boarding school feel, (although I should add there is a male student’s college next door). Interestingly, I learnt that first year students were called freshettes. I am not sure if the author came up with the term for her book or whether it was a common name used in Australia at the time. One of the older students at Bridget Moore College, Heather Markham, comes across a wannabe head girl. Her first appearance in the book is followed by the comment:
‘The girl was always explaining or interfering in that well-meaning way which regrettably arouses only impotent fury in others. She seemed predestined for welfare work.’
This is expanded upon when it comes to her efforts to make first year students ‘feel at home.’ We are told that: ‘she spoke as though freshettes were an under-privileged unit in society, whose welfare was her cause. They would be grateful to Heather for the first term and then spend the rest of the year trying to avoid her.’
June Wright could be quite reticent when it came to listing the mystery authors she had read or heard of. Sayers was one of the few lucky ones to get a mention, but there are many others who did not. On a tangential note, there were many contemporary Australian crime writers she claimed not to have known of. Consequently, I don’t know if June Wright had read any of Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple books, (or if she did, did she like them,) but in several ways Miss Marple and Mother Paul are quite similar.
When Elizabeth Drew first meets Mother Paul, as the college’s new warden, she finds her dithery. She expects Mother Paul to take a firm stance with Judith, so she is disconcerted when Mother Paul makes irrelevant comments about the orderliness of the books in the library. This impression of being scatty is one that takes hold in the minds of more than one of the characters. I was reminded of Miss Marple’s self-statement in Nemesis (1971) that she is ‘an ordinary rather scatty old lady.’
Naturally like Miss Marple, Mother Paul’s has ‘keen wits,’ to borrow a phrase from The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) and it is not long before Elizabeth perceives this:
‘Elizabeth silently and reluctantly applauded the nun’s shrewdness, which, however, was doing nothing to solve the inner conflict she was experiencing. There was a sudden frightening uncertainty about everything, which somehow stemmed from the serene figure of the Warden herself.’
I think Miss Marple could also discombobulate people in a similar manner, turning pre-conceived ideas upside down. Another character who can feel perplexed by Mother Paul is Inspector Savage. He describes her as having ‘a mixture of shrewdness and naiveness’ and as ‘a recluse from the world.’ Inspector Savage can see that there are no flies on Mother Paul, but he is conflicted by the notion that a nun could know enough of world to be able to solve a crime. An example of his scepticism can be found here:
‘While he had no doubt that human weakness displayed itself on occasions even in religious community life, she could not possibly know the extent of propensity evil.’
Again, in this line I found an echo of a Miss Marple novel. In The Murder at the Vicarage, Inspector Slack says:
‘I really believe that wizened-up old maid thinks she knows everything there is to know. And hardly been out of this village all her life. Preposterous. What can she know of life?’
To which the vicar of the tale informs us that: ‘though doubtless Miss Marple knew next to nothing of Life with a capital L, she knew practically everything that went on in St Mary Mead.’ Overall, I would say I enjoy Mother Paul as a detective, perhaps even more so than when I first encountered her in Reservation for Murder (1958).
Earlier in my review I mentioned the inspiration Gaudy Night gave to June Wright and I think this can be seen at many points in the narrative, although I would not say that Elizabeth Drew is not anyone’s Harriet Vane! I won’t go through all the parallels between the two books, as I think that would put new readers to either in peril. However, within the first quarter of the book, when rumours are doing the rounds concerning Judith’s big statement in chapter 1, Elizabeth Drew bumps into the housekeeper of the male student college, Miss Knight. Miss Knight complains a lot about the amount of work she does yet refuses to ask for help and has little good to say about modern domestic staff. She claims they are too interested in getting a higher education. Miss Knight is keen to draw more gossip from Elizabeth and says:
‘By the way, what’s this I hear about your college? I never did think it healthy – a lot of women living together with their noses in books or squinting at bits of frogs’ insides. It’s not natural, I always say. someone’s bound to act silly.’
A similar sentiment can be found in Gaudy Night and Miss Knight compounds her patriarchal stance when she indulges the very tasteless behaviour of the male students when they plan a skit based around Maureen’s disappearance. It is the invariable “boys will be boys” excuse. Although having said that the ladies certainly don’t keep their claws retracted when the female students decide to prank Judith as a way of blowing off steam once the police investigation gets underway. The thinking behind this resentment is that if Judith had not made a nuisance of herself in the beginning, then no one would be getting bothered by policemen now. Bizarrely even staff such as Miss Dove and Elizabeth Drew get sucked into this thinking and so do not end up curbing the vicious pranks. Naturally the reader cheers when Mother Paul gets involved.
I did have some concerns about the length of this mystery, fearing a shorter later novel might not be as good, but despite probably being Wright’s shortest novel, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think the shorter length helped to keep the plot exciting and dramatic and prevented any slackening of the pace. This is an important point given that the book starts with a cold case; a crime type which can lead to investigations being slow off the mark.
A confession from the culprit is required at the end and this is a plot device I am not overly keen on. It can come across as a bit lazy. However, when reading the explanation of the solution afterwards, I think it would be inaccurate to charge Wright with laziness in her puzzle/plot construction. The puzzle aspect of the book is cleverer than I suspected, but this is not something you immediately realise as the clues are subtle, yet obvious at the same time. I definitely had some: “How did I not spot that?” moments. This is a book in which you need to keep an eye on the details, look out for discrepancies and keep asking questions about why X or Y happened. One downside to the solution though is that it requires information Inspector Savage learns off the page. The reader might make an educated guess as to where the policeman has gone, but we are not able to find the information he brings back, from other parts in the book. I can see why that information gathering must take place off the page, as it would spoil the solution too soon if done openly. But part of me still thinks a mystery writer needs to try and avoid getting into those narrative holes in the first place.
Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed my second outing with Mother Paul and due to the well-chosen setting, there is a real liveliness and freshness to the piece. The good pacing keeps you reading well past your bedtime, and I think Wright does deliver a sneakily clued mystery.
If you want to find out more about June Wright and her work then click here to read a talk I gave about her.