I finally got round to reading a book I've been meaning to read for about a year. Too many books, too little time, indeed!
As some of you will recall, I enthusiastically reviewed several of Winifred Peck's novels last year, beginning with The Warrielaw Jewel, the first of only two murder mysteries that Peck published. (With mystery writers being rediscovered and reprinted at a delightful pace in the past few years, it's shocking that no one has got round to these yet, but rest assured I'm doing everything I can to make it happen…) So, why it took me so long to read her other mystery, Arrest the Bishop? (1949), is a mystery even to me.
That earlier novel, as you may recall, was set in Edwardian Edinburgh, while Bishop surely makes some use of Peck's personal experience as the daughter of a bishop and the sister of not one, but two priests (one Catholic, one Anglican). The novel is perhaps not quite a true closed society novel, since it's set at the bishop's palace instead of in a monastery or other religious institution, but with the sometimes chaotic gathering of church figures gathered at the palace for an ordination, it comes close to being one. But because it takes place in a home, however atypical the home may be, the ecclesiastical mood is lightened now and then by domestic details and family drama as well as religious conflict and disruption.
In short, a blackmailing clergyman—who has already been paid off and silenced once a few years before—arrives at the bishop's palace on the eve of the ordination, where several of his blackmail victims (including the bishop himself) are conveniently gathered. That he doesn't remain alive for long after his arrival will surprise no one, but the mystery is worked out in classic Golden Age style and with charming, believable and sometimes hilarious characters. One of the candidates for ordination, Dick Marlin, gets pulled into helping the passionately anti-clergy local inspector, while also, as a long-time friend of the family, becoming involved in the conflicts and dramas surrounding the bishop's two daughters.
The bishop's palace itself proves a wonderfully evocative setting, a monstrosity from which multiple wings and new additions now branch off, resulting in hallways veering in all directions (and allowing, should one so desire, for easy and unexpected entries and exits). The palace itself is intriguing but add in that it's built next to the dramatic ruins of a medieval abbey, and the eerie stage is set:
Bobs lingered at the lattice. Yes, the snow had fallen and transformed the winter night. The moon fell on blanched lawns, and beyond them laid capricious fingers on the ruins of the Guest House and Infirmarium, visible from this side of the house. The walls lay dark and ominous but a white radiance lit up here a broken roof, there a fragile rose window and desolate turret stairway. Behind them the bare trees and shrubs stood like a ghostly concourse of those Carthusian monks who had paced the cloisters to the first Matins of Christmas long ago. There, beyond the frame of the luxurious rose-velvet curtains, far from the sparkling fire and table behind him, lay the true life of endurance, asceticism and world-denial, thought Bobs, fanciful for once.
As in The Warrielaw Jewel, too, and for that matter in some of her other novels, Peck effectively uses the technique of distancing her story in the past, but nevertheless making occasional references to the present. It's a bit more subdued here than in Warrielaw, in which the main character actually discusses the differences in her own perspective now compared to what it was then. Here, we never really learn who the narrator is (unless I overlooked it), but the technique still works pretty well. In this case, the story is set around Christmas of 1920, but Peck highlights, for example, the similarities or distinctions between that postwar period and the post-World War II period in which she was writing the novel.
Occasionally, this is rather subtle. For instance, surely there is a bit of Peck's post-World War II attitude in this passage about the post-World War I attitudes of the bishop's daughters:
Such a very carefully edited story of Judith's affairs had been given her by her parents that Sue, who knew all about it with the simple acceptance of a post-war youth which would never again confuse ignorance with innocence, sometimes forgot how little she was supposed to know. Victorian girls were not allowed to see or touch pitch for fear of defilement. Sue and her contemporaries had learnt to meet it and wash away the stains carefully afterwards.
I have to make my frequent disclaimer that the solution to the mystery here does not strike me as a particular ingenious one. I had more or less guessed the killer and the motive by the time I reached the big reveal. But, per my norm again, I wasn't bothered at all by that, as the cleverness of the puzzle always takes a back seat to the characters and writing for me, but hardcore fans of puzzle-focused mysteries (do any hardcore fans of puzzle-focused mysteries still read this blog, after all the times I have undoubtedly disappointed them?!) may not be impressed.