Unholy Writ by David Williams (Williams Collins Sons, 1976) is the first of 17 mysteries published between 1976 and 1993 featuring Mark Treasure, Vice-Chairman of Grenwood Phipps & Co., merchant bankers of London, and his actress wife Molly. Treasure is clearly cousin to John Putnam Thatcher, Senior Vice-President of the Sloan Guaranty Trust bank in New York. Anyone who has read the Emma Lathen series will recognize many of the same themes transported across the Atlantic.
The book opens with a letter dated 19 October 1644 from a landed Royalist to his wife, explaining where he hid the family valuables as well as a manuscript by Will Shakespeare about Arden Forest. The letter adjures the wife to hasten with their son to a place of safety while the writer continues to fight for the King against the traitor Cromwell.
The timeframe moves to the present where Mark Treasure is looking forward to a weekend in the country near Northampton after bank meetings have been cancelled unexpectedly. Treasure is a cousin to Sir Arthur Moonlight, the former owner of Mitchell Hall, who has come to regret allowing George Scarbuck, leader of the right-wing Forward Britain Movement, to acquire the white elephant. Treasure is enlisted to arrange to buy the estate back, even though doing so will bankrupt Sir Arthur.
Quite a lot goes on in this compact story. The parish grave digger disappears just before a funeral and his body is found in a burning boat miles away, bringing in the local police. An explosion in the middle of the night causes even more havoc. Scarbuck’s method of circumventing the strict laws on foreign workers — bringing in Filipino natives “on holiday” while they actually do manual labor for pennies a day — gets a lot of verbiage. One of them escapes on a motorcycle and leads Treasure and the police on a midnight chase through the country. An Oxford grad student working on her doctoral dissertation searches for evidence that Shakespeare’s play As You Like It was initially staged in the gardens at Mitchell Hall. The dry and understated narrative results in some amusing scenes throughout and a hilarious one on the golf course.
Architectural features abound. Every parapet, column, roof, balustrade, etc. is described in exhaustive and exhausting detail. Some of the plot hinges on the construction of specific buildings. I was convinced the author was an architect and was quite surprised to learn he was an advertising executive before he took up mystery writing. Simon Brett wrote an informative obituary about Williams, which can be found here: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/oct/02/guardianobituaries.advertising
Review and photo based on the 2002 reprint by Chivers Press. Originally published on Kevin’s Corner, https://kevintipplescorner.blogspot.com/, on 19 March 2018.