I have to start out with a note about this book's title, which is one of my all-time favorites for a mystery novel. It's taken from a bit of folk wisdom used by several of the characters:
If only it would freeze, or snow, instead of the eternal fog and damp that turned the fields an unnatural green. Old Harry had been wagging his head and saying a green December filled the graveyards. Mr. Fewsey wagged his head and said the same thing. So did old Mrs. Vale, as if it was a matter for rejoicing. There wasn't much more room in the Shotshall churchyard to fill.
It's a clever title, and a completely appropriately morbid thought for a murder mystery.
Alas, I wish I could say that the copy I read with such pleasure over a lazy weekend was one of the original editions that actually bore this title. Sadly, though, those early editions are pricey, and the only readily available, affordable copy of the book was the reprint version by Rue Morgue Press. Even more sadly—and very disappointingly in a reprint publisher—Rue Morgue saw fit to rename the book when they reprinted it. They even refer, in their introduction, to the "dull titles" Sarsfield selected for this and her one later mystery, A Dinner for None (1948)—a puzzling critique from a publisher who chose to replace these interesting and evocative titles with the mind-numbingly dull (and this is the only time I'll refer to these hideous titles in this review, so make a note if you'd like to acquire them inexpensively) Murder at Shots Hall and Murder at Beechlands. Ugh. They're like those generic, white label products that people bought in grocery stores for a while in the Eighties, with no brand names and only the simplest labels, like "Dishwashing Soap" and "Corn Flakes." Apart from my being offended that a reprint publisher would decide that they know better what a book should be called than its author did, it's genuinely bewildering for me that anyone could find those achingly boring titles an improvement on Sarsfield's.
Ahem. Okay, I feel better for having got that off my chest. (And despite my growling, I am of course grateful to Rue Morgue for having made these books more readily available and for drawing readers' attention to them.)
At any rate, the Rue Morgue introduction also notes that, at least as of the date of the reprints, they had been unable to find information about Sarsfield, and I was happy, in my recent update that added fleshed-out information on numerous authors on my Overwhelming List, to be able to add some details of her life. Among other things, it was hitherto assumed that she had published only her two mysteries and a single mainstream novel, Gloriana (1946), which Rue Morgue describes as "very British ... a look at the bickering inhabitants of a neighborhood in London awaiting the arrival of the young woman title character." Which frankly sounds irresistible to me, but sadly the book seems to be nonexistent in the U.S.—no copies for sale on Abe Books and not a single American library has a copy (another for the Hopeless Wish List).
|Back cover of Rue Morgue edition|
However, it turns out that during and shortly after World War II, Sarsfield also published four books of children's fiction under her married name, Maureen Pretyman—They Knew Too Much (1943), Dreaming Mountain: A Fairy Story of County Kerry (1944), Queen Victoria Lost Her Crown (1946), and Stars in Danger (1946). What's more, I had speculatively wondered if perhaps her sudden disappearance from the publishing world after her second mystery appeared in 1948 might have indicated that she died soon after, but that's not the case either, as in fact she lived for another 13 years, dying in Cork in 1961. So her reasons for not writing any additional novels may remain as mysterious as those of many other authors on my list (though perhaps both the beginning of her writing career and its end have something to do with World War II, during which she may have found time weighing heavy on her hands?). And by the way, John Herrington also discovered that, at the time she was writing her novels, Sarsfield was living in Hastings, which immediately evoked Foyle's War for me (though it probably should have more quickly evoked something a bit more historically significant?).
The mystery takes place at Shots Hall, a partly bombed out manor house in Sussex, and in the surrounding village of Shotshall. The house is humorously described in the opening pages:
Mercifully, more than two-thirds of Shots Hall had been burned down by a glut of incendiaries during an air raid. The gutted walls, aided by gales of wind and rain sweeping in from the sea, had fallen in, and the ancient Harry had turned the tumulus-like mound of rubble into a monstrous rock garden, from which burst forth, in due course, not only flowers but a mass of strange and alien weeds. Harry called them fireflowers. They were very odd. No one attempted to weed the rock garden, so, in time, it crawled with pallid convolvulus, which strangled everything in turn, except the hardiest of the fireflowers, in a kind of gloating satisfaction that was almost cannibalistic.
Early on, the family's old housekeeper, Molly, is found poisoned in her cottage not far from the house, shortly after local artist Flikka Ashley—who lives with her Aunt Bee at the manor and has a reputation of being not, shall we say, as pure as driven snow—pays her her nightly visit on the way to her studio in a nearby outbuilding, where she's sculpting her masterpiecre. The sleazy local policeman, Sergeant Arnoldson, resentful at having his advances spurned by Flikka, immediately assumes her guilt, and when the bodies start to pile up fast (and the graveyard looks like overflowing), and the fact emerges that Flikka was present before each murder and had plenty of opportunity, things begin to look suspicious indeed.
But Inspector Lane Parry of Scotland Yard, who happens to be staying with the local Deputy Chief Constable Mahew, is not so sure of her guilt, though his objective thinking on the matter may be compromised by his own attraction to the dynamic local artist. And then there's misanthropic police surgeon, Dr. Abbot, who also finds Flikka irresistible…
Among the more amusing complications for Inspector Parry is the immense predictability of the villagers' behavior, which suggests that practically anyone could have seized their opportunity to put an unwanted neighbor out of commission:
There was, indeed, an almost awful regularity in the habits of the village. Willard, the boss of the garage, got drunk and stayed drunk for four days every six weeks. Not every month, not every seven weeks, but exactly six weeks to the dot. And he was never drunk for more or for less than four days. Once a month by the calendar, the Ambroses had a family row. Once every five weeks they threw a party. Every night at six o'clock Mr. Fewsey from the butcher's shop banged on the closed door of the pub and shouted the same remark, "Tom, yer clock's slow, open up, can't yer?" Mr. Fewsey never went to the pub at five minutes past six so that he wouldn't have to wait on the doorstep. Every night unless she was out to dine, Flikka Ashley knocked on Molly's door at half past eight. And so on.
(If my math is correct, surely every so often the Ambrose family row must take place at their party…)
I've mentioned here many times before that when I read a mystery novel, I care little about the puzzle involved. A really clever puzzle will certainly give me pleasure, but I don't particularly mind if the puzzle is no great shakes, as long as the characters and their relationships are interesting, there is some humor along the way, and it's deftly plotted enough to keep me wanting to know what happens next. I make virtually no effort at all to imagine who the murderer is in a given novel, and the explication of exactly how the a crime was committed is usually the most tedious part of a mystery for me.
Certainly not everyone reads mysteries this way, so I always feel I should make this disclaimer. And I feel it's even more necessary here, since in the current case I not only thought I knew about halfway through who the murderer was (99% of the time I'm wrong when I have that feeling), but it turned out I actually did know who it was (and, furthermore, why, which I don’t think has ever happened before). So, if any of you are the kind of reader who prioritizes the puzzle over all else in a mystery, this one might not be your cup of tea.
|As much as I hate Rue Morgue's generic retitling,|
I have to admit it's a charming cover
On the other hand, for all the reasons I myself read mysteries, this one is unquestionably a charmer. The humor is enjoyable and sometimes even laugh-out-loud funny, though it's also not so ever-present that it takes away from the story or its believability. The characters are charming and entertaining. The police officers and inspector are amusing and distinctly characterized, and their interactions are entertaining (a rare thing, in my experience). And the setting, in its bombed out manor house in the very last days of World War II, is right up my alley.
The Rue Morgue introduction suggests that Flikka threatens to run away with the novel, but actually, although she is likeable enough, I think the real thief of hearts here is Sergeant Congreve, a junior officer in the local police, whose "awww shucks" charm and quick wit make him so irresistible that Inspector Parry tries to win him from Chief Constable Mahew in a game of rummy. He only appears on a few occasions, but when he does he makes an impression, as here when the investigators have discovered yet another possible suspect:
"Well, well, well," Parry sighed as they tramped back along the lane. "What a community. So soon as we eliminate one lot, someone else crops up. Ambroses out, Camilla in."
"This is like driving a car along the road and every corner another passenger 'ops on board," Congreve decided cheerfully.
"All I can say is," Parry grunted, "that I hope the springs don't give way from the strain."
But the best of the novel's comic relief comes from two characters, the dizzy neighbor woman, Miss Merridew, who is forever sewing new curtains for her house. I've always wondered about the varied names people in novels give to rooms in their home, and her Miss Merridew gives Inspector Parry a bit of an explication of them:
Thus disarmed, Miss Merridew let him in, bobbing round him like a little, friendly poodle.
"Oh, dear, yes! Do come in-poor man, such a horrid night. So muddy and damp and horrid, isn't it? Now, if only I hadn't finished my supper! I wonder if I could find you anything? I eat so little, really, that there never is. Now, when my dear father, was alive, there always was—do come in. In here. This is my drawing room. Really it's a living room. When there isn't a dining room, then it's a living room, isn't it? Not a drawing room, as there's nothing to withdraw from but the kitchen."
Holy Moses, thought Parry, shall I ever get any sense out of her?
And finally, there's the fire-breathing Dr. Abbot, whose violent imprecations about the hardships of being a village doctor bely what certainly seems like a good heart underneath. His mutterings when he is dragged from bed after the first murder are classic:
"A pox on you," Abbot said to the telephone. "A thousand maledictions on policemen who ring me up at night when I'm trying to get some sleep." He lived alone, but for a housekeeper, and so was in the habit of sometimes talking out loud to himself.
As he dressed, he talked. The words that flowed from his mouth called on devils and saints to witness to the revolting life of doctors in general and himself in particular. Why, in the name of sin and shame, couldn't people die and be born at decent times of the day? Why always at night, or in the middle of breakfast, lunch or dinner? "A thousand revolting diseases on them," he told his shoes, jerking at the laces. "The Ten Commandments go sour in their stomachs, and may Abraham, Isaac and Jacob spit in their eyes." Then, ruefully, he began to laugh. His private blasphemies, both biblical and medical, gave him a sort of bitter satisfaction and amusement. For to his patients, his female ones at any rate, he was a model of decorum. Inwardly, however, he was not in the least mild.
It's all very great fun, and I have a feeling many of you who share my taste in mysteries would enjoy it a lot. And this one (in the Rue Morgue edition with the hideous title I noted above) is pretty readily available if you check for used copies on Abe Books or Amazon. I already have a copy of Sarsfield's other mystery, A Dinner for None, and am now very much looking forward to seeing how she evolved with her second effort.