Facing South by Winifred Peck (1950)

The day that the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association comes to town is always a highlight of my bookish year. Some years I have a lovely time just admiring so many beautiful books in our town hall, and some years I find gems that I know I have to take home to read. Last year I brought home this book. I have books by the author that have been reissued by Persephone Books and by the Dean Street Press in my collection, I have yet to read any of them, but as I had never heard of this one, as I loved what I read about it on the cover, I didn’t want to risk letting it go and never seeing another copy.

The story begins beautifully, with a young newly married couple, Kay and Gilly Pallin, pausing for a picnic on their way to a family conference. They are looking down at an abbey set in a beautiful valley, and that abbey is the main reason for the family gathering.

Canon Pallin, Kay’s grandfather, had found the abbey in ruins when he was a very young priest, and restoring it became his life’s work. He considered it a great achievement, more than worthy of the time and money that he had poured into it; but his pursuit of his grand ambition had consequences for his family. Few of them understood and many of them were unhappy about what they had lost in consequence.

Kay had only met his Aunt Sophy, because his mother had been estranged from her family and her father had been angry at the paid her father had caused her. When she learned that both of his parents were dead his mother’s sister had written to him. he had liked her enormously, he had loved hearing about his mother’s childhood and the relations he had never met, and it was for Sophie’s sake that he had agreed to attend and to meet the surviving members of his mother’s family.

Gilly had only met Sophy, and so her husband explained the family history and connections to her before as they sat admiring the view.

Canon Pallin had high expectations of his children, he had a ‘difficult temper and a rather Old Testament disposition’ and so Kay’s mother wasn’t the only one of them to be cut off. Mark had upset his father by becoming a conscientious objector to the First World War, and becoming a successful campaigning journalist didn’t bring him back into favour. His father hoped that Steven would follow him into the church, but Steven chose a career in medicine, becoming a doctor and developing a successful private practice. Hilda also fell out with her father over her choice of husband, though Kay, who had met her, commented that she seemed to be the kind of woman who fell out with everybody.

Only Sophy hadn’t fallen out with her father; and she had returned to help and support him after her husband and her only child were both killed in an accident. When her father became frail he was moved to a nursing home and she remained in the family home with Mrs. Cribble, who was the housekeeper and cook and who became a very good friend.

Sophy had called the family together, because she had received a very generous offer for the house but the terms of her father’s will would make the sale difficult. He was near the end of his life, but not so near that the offer wouldn’t expire first. She was anxious about the descent of her siblings, various spouses and at least half a dozen of the next generation. Mrs. Cribble reassured her that they would cope, and when Kay and Gilly arrived they did the same. Kay stayed upstairs with his aunt and Gilly, who was always happiest in a kitchen, went downstairs to help Mrs. Cribble.

When the family arrived there were much to talk about, many different opinions and old grievances were aired, before different groups went out to see what they might do to resolve the situation.

Lady Peck managed her large and diverse cast of characters beautifully, she spun her story cleverly; and though this is a relatively short book she does a great deal to illuminate the lives, relationships and concerns of different family members, with insight and empathy; and to show the effects on a generation of living through two World Wars and great deal of social change.

It felt quite natural for Sophy to sit in the kitchen and chat with Mrs. Cribble, but her sister Hilda was horrified at the impropriety. My feelings chimed with Sophy’s but I understood why Hilda felt as she did, as she was unhappy and wanted to feel that she had some status in the world if nothing else.

The writing was intelligent, warm and engaging, it was rich with detail and the dialogue was particularly well done.

I loved that the story considered the effect on his family of the Canon’s rebuilding of the abbey rather than the rebuilding itself; and I appreciated that much more happened on the day that the family resolving the problem of the house and the will.

I loved Sophy, who was so lovely and reminded me a little of Trollope’s Mr. Harding.

I found so much to love in this book, I can’t list them all but I had to say that.

The resolution that was found at the end of the day was wonderful, casting new light on the character of Canon Pallin; and an epilogue set a few months later was a nice way to catch up my favourites – Gilly and Kay, Sophy and Mrs. Cribble – to see how their lives had changed and to hear news of others.

It won’t be long before I pick up another of Winifred Peck’s novels – and I couldn’t resist ordering another, that was likened to Trollope on the dust jacket of this one.

I See More Golden Age Mysteries ….

…. we seem to be living in a Golden Age for reissues.

The books are tricky to write about without giving too much away, and so I’m going to briefly mention two that I’ve read recently that are quite different but feel like a natural pair.

I’ve been distracted lately – by life, by family, by work – and books like this have been lovely therapy.

One grew from a quiet beginning into an engrossing story; the other had a fabulous beginning that it couldn’t quite live up to.

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton (1936)

One dark November evening Sir Wilfred Saxonby was found dead on the train he used regularly to travel from his London office to his country home. He was alone in his carriage; the door locked on his request. A gun, engraved with his initials lay close to his body. His son and daughter were both away, traveling abroad at his suggestion. As the local police worked, slowly and methodically, so many things suggested that Sir Wilfred had died by his own hand.

There were unanswered questions though, and so an officer from Scotland Yard was summoned.

26077475Inspector Arnold believed that there had been a murder; and that to carry out the murder there must have been an elaborate conspiracy. He called in his old friend Desmond Merrion – a criminologist and amateur detective – and between them they untangled the puzzle.

I can’t say much at all about the plot without giving too much away, but I can tell you many things I loved about this book.

I believed in all of the people in the story, and the things they said and did. The crime was extraordinary, but I could quite easily believe that this was the same world where my grandparents lived, and that maybe they had read about the case in the newspaper, and talked about it.

I appreciated the relationship between Arnold and Merrion. One was a steady worker with all of the resources of the police at his disposal; the other was an ideas man in possession of the sharpest of minds. They made a great team and they had a mutual respect that I really appreciated.

And I loved that small pieces of evidence were assembled, steadily building a case against the murderer. The plotting is clever and complex, red herrings are very well deployed, and the story twisted and turned beautifully. It’s very much a puzzle mystery; there’s a solid motive for the murder, the psychology is there but it is very simple.

I had to keep turning the pages, and I was sorry to reach the last one.

But I see that Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion investigated quite a few more cases, that one is already on its way back into print, and I hope that others will follow.

Calamity in Kent by John Rowland (1950)

Reporter Jimmy London is convalescing at a small seaside town in Kent and when he meets a lift attendant who has found the body of a man who has quite clearly been murdered in his lift. Jimmy takes charge of the situation, and he hopes that he will be able to climb the career ladder,  selling an exclusive inside story to one of the daily papers.

It seems that luck is with Jimmy: his good friend Inspector Shelley from Scotland Yard is on the spot and takes charge of the investigation. He agrees that Jimmy can have any news about the case first, in exchange for a little help with the case. Because Inspector Shelley realises that people will talk to a reporter in a way that won’t talk to the police, and that the reporter will bring a different perspective to the case.

26077481He played Jimmy and Jimmy played him too. He didn’t mention that he had searched the body before that police arrived, that he had found a notebook, and that he was planning more investigations of his own. He would tell the police what he found out, but he wanted it to be his own enquiry and his own story.

It was a good story, and Jimmy was a charming and engaging narrator. I enjoyed the period setting,  the seaside location,  and some very interesting characters that Jimmy met in the course of his investigations.

I’m sorry that my credulity was stretched a little too far. Too many people were rather too ready to talk to Jimmy, about themselves, about what had happened, and about what they knew.  And I couldn’t quite believe how much latitude Inspector Shelley gave Jimmy; or how grateful he was when Jimmy put forward suggestions that an Inspector from Scotland Yard would surely have thought of himself.

The final denouement was dramatic; but it was also ridiculously improbable.

I was well entertained and I was interested enough to read to the end, but reading more books in this series isn’t high on my list of priorities.

But certain other other Golden Age mysteries are ….