I have been fortunate enough to receive a few Furrowed Middlebrow titles from Dean Street Press for review. A couple of those I still have unread, but Arrest the Bishop? is the first I have gone off and bought for myself having read a persuasive review of it.
I first became familiar with Winifred Peck through Persephone books and her 1942 novel House-Bound – which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then, I can’t say I had thought any more about this writer – who wrote twenty-six books, more than twenty of them novels. I wonder now, where all those other titles went to – and why they dropped out of print? Her other mystery novel The Warrielaw Jewel is also re-issued by Dean Street Press – and I am keen to read it too, and I also have another of her novels Bewildering Cares on my kindle to look forward to.
In his introduction to this new Furrowed Middlebrow edition, crime fiction expert Martin Edwards acknowledges how her two mystery novels show real accomplishment, but she was overshadowed by her talented family – namely her brother Ronald Knox a leading light of the ‘Golden Age of Murder.’ Peck’s two mystery novels were published a decade apart and don’t share a detective or form part of a series, and so has been discounted as a mystery writer since. A writer who began publishing before the First World War, Winifred Peck came from a fascinating family; who included writers, a bishop, and the editor of Punch among them. Winifred (later Lady) Peck was also the aunt of author Penelope Fitzgerald.
Arrest the Bishop? – first published in 1949 is set in 1920 – the unlikely scene of a murder a bishop’s palace. Winifred Peck; the daughter of a bishop – no doubt had great fun playing around with this idea. Set around Christmas it is another book to add to the list of Christmas books we all like to compile in December – however the season is very much a backdrop – and there is nothing remotely Christmassy about this particular story.
Dr Broome; Bishop of Evelake and his family are preparing for an important house party just before Christmas, an ordination weekend for a small group of young men starting out on their clerical careers. The Bishop and his wife and their youngest daughter Sue are expecting a large party. Chancellor Chailly, Canon Wye, and the young clerics themselves of course as well as two other young parsons already known to the family; Robert Boarder (known as Bobs) – who works as the Bishop’s secretary – as he recovers from injuries obtained in the Great War, and Dick Marlin, who was in military intelligence during the war.
Snow is falling heavily (of course it is, it only ever snows at Christmas in books) the palace is enormous and there is a shortage of coal. Servants have also been difficult to get, Moira who has worked faithfully for the family for many years is laid up in bed, waiting transfer to the hospital for an urgent cancer operation. Mrs Broome has therefore been recently obliged to employ Soames as butler, who listens at doors, and is generally sly and inefficient.
As the house party start to gather in time for the ordination celebrations there are two more unexpected guests. Judith is the first – the Bishops elder daughter – she is a frivolous beauty – who blithely lives a life at odds with that of a bishop’s palace. She has separated from her husband, and desperate for a divorce is already involved with another man. Judith has recently telephoned her mother hinting at great trouble – trouble she thinks nothing of bringing to her father’s door when he least needs it. The Bishop is a former school headmaster, where he was seen as rather weak, lacking discipline and authority, and as Bishop he rather fears a scandal. Soon after Judith’s arrival – another far less welcome gate crasher arrives. The Rev Ulder, a local parish priest, a man universally loathed. There have been previous stories of drunkenness and embezzlement, but now the rotten priest is adding blackmail to his portfolio of wrong doings. Ulder has a knowledge of certain things various members of the house party would rather keep quiet, and he is determined to use this knowledge to his advantage. Ulder arrives the worse for drink, and having issued his threats collapses in front of the Bishop and his guests.
“He caught the back of a chair, staggered and groaned. There was a heavy crash and fall, and the parson lay motionless and livid, while lilies from a vase fell, like a wreath, across his chest.”
Put to bed in the Bishop’s palace, a doctor is called, who leaves six morphia tablets with Mrs Broome with strict instructions of administration. He further stipulates that Ulder should be given no strong drink, and left as quietly as possible, until an ambulance can come and collect him and Moira (the faithful servant) and take them to hospital. Despite these instructions several people tiptoe into Ulder’s room, to check on him. The following morning – Ulder is dead – of morphia poisoning, one of his bags is missing – and there is a whole host of suspects – many of them clergy, one of them a bishop.
“‘To give light to them which sit in darkness’ were the words which echoed oddly in Dick’s mind as he entered the shadowy study. It was an absurd and topsy-turvy idea for a humble candidate for the priesthood to entertain of his fathers in God, but under the low hand lamp by the dismal fire the Bishop, more like a death mask of St. Joseph than ever, the saturnine stillness of Canon Wye and the obvious perturbation in Chancellor Chailly’s rubicund face, suggested a huddled party of alarmed pilgrims in the Valley of the Shadow of disgrace. If only Dick were a Greatheart instead of his very everyday self!
“We have sent for you, Dick because we feel the need of advice, and you have been in our dealings with Ulder from the first.”
Chief Constable Mack decides to investigate this particular crime himself – a man deeply suspicious of the clergy he is determined there will not be any kind of church cover up here. Rev. Dick Marlin, church deacon, finds himself assisting Mack in the investigation.
This is a really good mystery, lots of suspects, twists and turns and I loved the setting of a bishop’s palace in the 1920s.