Friday’s Forgotten Book: Unholy Writ by David Williams

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.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Crime at the Noah’s Ark by Molly Thynne

The Crime at the Noah’s Ark is one of only six mysteries written by Molly Thynne and the first of three with the intriguing Dr. Constantine, a chess master. Originally published in 1931 by T. Nelson & Sons, this Golden Age classic was re-issued by Dean Street Press in 2016 and contains an introduction by Curtis Evans.

It’s Christmas in England, therefore it’s time for a country house murder or two. No one needs to ask about the obligatory snow in such a scenario: the snow has been falling for weeks and now is no longer a joke to anyone who relies on transport of any kind. Nonetheless, thousands of holidaymakers set out on their travels, many of them heading to an exclusive coastal resort. Angus Stuart expected the great good fortune that had visited him in the past few months as his book became an out-of-the-blue bestseller to hold and make the roads passable for him but he came to grief at the same hill dozens of others foundered upon. Fortunately an old coaching inn that now caters to a hunting crowd is nearby. Stuart makes his way there and watches as other stranded wayfarers trickle in through the rest of the day.

It’s an oddly assorted lot with a hard-drinking Army major, two elderly sisters, a dancer hired for the season at the resort and unable to reach it, the wealthy Lord Romsey and his children, a quiet upper-class lady, an ordinary accountant, an obnoxious American woman, and a traveling salesman as well as Stuart, Constantine, chauffeurs, and assorted support staff. Alarums occur the very first night when one of the elderly sisters awakens Stuart with an account of a masked man in the hall. This is the first of many broken nights for the inhabitants of the inn. Eventually the Army major is found dead and the fabulous emeralds belonging to the American visitor disappear.

The snow prevents anyone outside the village from arriving to assist and the local constable is left on his own to solve the crimes. Constantine and Stuart take an active part in the investigation, which is far too involved to describe here.

This story was a pleasure to read. The set-up was a bit different from the usual country house murder but the basics were all there: limited number of suspects mostly unknown to each other, the weather restricting movement, a sharp-eyed amateur sleuth. The plot was intricate and the resolution was satisfying. Highly recommended.

Friday’s Forgotten Book: Arrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck

Winifred Peck (1882-1962) was born Winifred Francis Knox; Golden Age mystery writer Ronald Knox was her brother. She wrote over two dozen works of fiction and non-fiction, including two mysteries, The Warrielaw Jewel, 1933, and Arrest the Bishop?, 1949.

While Arrest the Bishop? was published well outside the Golden Age timeframe, it employs the Golden Age setting of a large country manor, actually a bishop’s palace, in the winter days leading up to Christmas. It also takes place in 1920, making it an early historical mystery, as Martin Edwards points out in his thoughtful introduction to the 2016 Dean Street Press edition.

The Bishop of Evelake is preparing for the visit of the Chancellor and the Canon of the Diocese a few days before Christmas to participate in the ordination of a half dozen new deacons and two new priests. His elder daughter decides to visit that weekend without notice, which worries him and his wife, as she is more than a little impulsive and her presence tends to be disruptive, something he does not need while his superiors in the church are present. In addition, she left her husband and found a replacement before actually divorcing the husband, which is certain to shock everyone, if they find out.

Even worse, a cleric who has been a thorn in the Church’s side for years is demanding attention again and shows up without notice. Reverend Ulder pilfered from the various charity funds he was responsible for in his parish and Church officials moved him to a country church with little activity to prevent further depredations. They decided against legal action because of the consequences of negative publicity to the Church. He is well aware of the reason for his demotion and decides to emigrate to America. He has collected unsavory information about nearly everyone and plans to blackmail the Bishop, the Chancellor, and the Canon, as well as a few others, to pay his way. Reverend Ulder dies soon after he arrives at the Bishop’s residence of a morphine overdose which he could not have administered to himself.

Chief Constable Mack, a staunch Presbyterian with a deep dread of the Church of England, assigns himself to the homicide investigation. He is sure that the Church is behind the sudden death and that he is justified in cutting a few corners, such as conducting searches without warrants, which earned him an irate interview with the Chief Magistrate. Of course the Church has nothing to do with the murder but it is a close call for the Bishop.

The story is set firmly in the aftermath of World War I, with a running commentary on the servant shortage and multiple references to wounded soldiers. However, a sly reference to one of Margery Allingham’s books published in 1949 reminded me that the book was really written much later.

A fine Golden Age read with some memorable characters.