Henrietta Who? by Catherine Aird (Macdonald, 1968) is the second book in the Calleshire Chronicles, featuring Inspector C.D. Sloan and his inept assistant DC Crosby. Calleshire is an imaginary county somewhere in England, quite large enough apparently to support two football teams, the East Calleshires and the West Calleshires.
Early one morning Mrs. Grace Jenkins is discovered dead in the road leading to her small house on the outskirts of the village of Larking. Her only known relative is her daughter Henrietta studying at a university an hour away. What was originally supposed to be a vehicular hit-and-run is exposed as deliberate murder by the post-mortem. This examination also revealed she had never had a child, throwing Henrietta into a state of utter confusion.
She subsequently finds that the lock to the desk where her mother kept her papers was broken, and her birth certificate and her mother’s wedding certificate are missing. Because the house was locked at the time, it is clear someone unknown has a key and can enter at will. Further investigation shows that the man she believed to be her father did not die during World War II, and the source of the pension her mother lived on is not a military widows’ fund.
In short, nothing Henrietta had been told about her life turns out to be real. Inspector Sloan thinks the reason for the murder is linked to Henrietta’s true identity and her upcoming 21st birthday. Nothing much is known about Grace Jenkins before she moved to Larking after the war, only that she was originally from East Calleshire. It was thought odd at the time that she would choose to live in West Calleshire but Mrs. Jenkins kept herself to herself and did not encourage questions. She had shown herself to be an exemplary mother to Henrietta, and after the passage of time the village accepted her as one of them.
In A Murder Is Announced (1950), Agatha Christie pointed out how easy it was after the war to move to any small town in England and provide a mendacious backstory that could not be verified easily, if at all. With so many records destroyed during the Blitz and families separated, creating a new identity was simple. The same scenario plays out here and Inspector Sloan has to pull every thread to get to the truth.
Catherine Aird’s Calleshire Chronicles never disappoint. These are fine tales of classic British detection. The New York Times called this title one of the best books of 1968. Cover photo is from the 2008 trade paperback reprint.