I was quite excited when I stumbled across this hitherto-unknown mystery at Aardvark Books in San Francisco. It was a Hogarth Crime edition from the 1980s, and I've always liked those editions and the kinds of books they selected. Add to that that the book allowed me to add a new author to my Overwhelming List (though just barely, as Katherine John published no other fiction and only co-wrote this novel). Plus, the plot, involving a locked room murder at a country manor house and an array of odd characters with lots of secrets, seemed irresistible.
Sadly, I've just found it altogether too easy to resist, and have abandoned it just beyond the halfway mark. (The common denominator of my literary abandonments is that the words "Life is too short" almost always glimmer across my consciousness, and once that happens it's virtually a sure thing that I will abandon the book within a few more pages. There may have been cases where those few pages have reawakened my interest enough to keep me reading, but I can't recall any offhand. One morning, on the MUNI train, reading this novel, I thought, "Life is too short," and realized I would likely have nothing to read during my evening commute.)
At first, it seemed that the quirky characters and the occasional bits of humor would carry me through, as when the butler, under suspicion of having committed the murder, absents himself from serving lunch, and the head of the household explains to his guests, "As a suspect … he feels above such menial tasks." But the humor was a bit too sparse to sustain what seemed to me otherwise a rather dry and plodding narrative—and one that I found strangely cold and, well, masculine, for a novel co-written by a woman. I have the feeling Katherine John must have worked mainly on plot elements or on the puzzle itself rather than on the writing. Of course that's making assumptions and stereotyping and being politically incorrect, but it was nevertheless the feeling I got based on years of preferring women writers to male.
Obviously, I can't provide much personal advice on whether the solution to the mystery is particularly clever or brilliant or unexpected, seeing as how I never reached that point in my reading. But for what it's worth, Steve at Mystery File clearly did finish the novel and still wasn't terribly excited about it:
For today’s audiences, large portions of this exercise in murder-solving will be dreary and dull to the extreme. For those of you who like puzzles, well, the puzzle is there, and without a doubt, a double delight it is. The problem is that it’s, well, unskillfully told, when measured by more modern standards, say of five or so years later.
You can also read a similarly unenthusiastic discussion of the book, but one which draws interesting connections to Josephine Tey's Miss Pym Disposes, here. And by the way, I don't consider that either discussion contains any plot spoilers (apart from the element of spoiling that unenthusiastic reviews might accomplish).
Of course, it's always fun to come across a hitherto unknown novel purely by chance (if chance and not some unfathomable readerly destiny is what genuinely rules our prowling in bookshops). Sadly, however, in this case, the pleasure ended there.
SHEILA PIM, Common or Garden Crime (1945)
There are simply too many books to read and too little time to read them in. If I hadn't already been aware of that, the fact that it took me so long to get around to reading Sheila Pim, despite repeated recommendations from multiple people, is enough to send me once again into my mini book geek panic attack at the thought of how many wonderful books there are out there that I've never read—indeed may still not have heard of. Surely Andy should be cheerfully willing to support me while I quit my job and spend every waking moment in a prone position with a book propped on my chest (my girth no doubt increasing by the day)?
Well, perhaps not.
But you can probably guess from this introduction that I quite enjoyed my introduction to Pim. She's been called an Irish Angela Thirkell, and I can see the comparison, but she's also a bit cozier, a perfect rainy day read. The coziness of Pim's books, though, doesn't mean she's not a smart and very talented writer. She wrote (if anyone among you is even further behind on your reading than I was) only four mysteries—Common or Garden Crime (1945), Creeping Venom (1946), A Brush with Death (1950), and A Hive of Suspects (1952). All of them were reprinted by Rue Morgue Press, but it looks like they are now beginning to lapse out of print again (good deals still to be had on them at Abe Books, happily). She also apparently wrote three non-mystery novels, and I'll bet it's not a surprise to anyone that I'm already in hot pursuit of the first of those…
I really need not share much of the plot of Common or Garden Crime: in 1943, in a charming Irish village, a garden-related poisoning appears at first to be accidental, but gradually reveals itself to be more sinister, and Lucy Bex, an amateur sleuth whose helpfulness and likability consistently places her in the middle of everything (a la Hazel Holt's Mrs. Malory), gradually works out the details while preparing for the village flower show and concealing a secret engagement between two of the young folk of the village. Along the way, she encounters numerous villagers who, though entertainingly varied, feel vividly like real people, and her uncovering of clues is often so well combined with her domestic tasks and sociability that one misses them entirely. In fact, her domestic knowledge is a large part of how she solves the mystery, and we see her unique logic at work in this passage (no spoilers, only discussion of suspicions):
"She's rather sinister too," said Lucy reflectively. "One of these spinsters, you know, though I say it as shouldn't. She seemed very interested in Lady Madeleine. And there she was at the Hall, all Sunday morning. She could easily have slipped into the kitchen and left the grated up roots instead of the horseradish."
"Yes, but she couldn't have known they were going to have horseradish."
"Oh yes, she could. Anyone who's ever done the housekeeping might have guessed that. Ordering meals," said Lucy, launching on a favorite topic, "is like free will and predestination. You think you can have what you like, and then you find it's all dictated by circumstances. The weekend before a bank holiday you have to think about having something cold for Monday. There isn't enough on lamb and nobody wants to eat cold mutton. Pork's no good in August, and you can't get ham at present. So you see it just has to be beef, and now that nobody has any mustard, horseradish naturally goes with it."
"Sounds simple," said Ivor skeptically. "I should think it would be a bit too simple for a jury, especially as they don't have women on them over here."
Throughout there is Pim's delightful sense of humor—rarely riotous, not as zany as Joan Coggin, for example, even sometimes rather subtle, but always great fun. I loved this little touch in a discussion between Lucy and her brother: "Linnaeus got up to let the cat out. Then he got up to let it in again. After this diversion he replied…"
I don't suppose Pim will go down in history for having created the most brilliant and impenetrable of puzzles, but I found the solution here rather clever. She won't be for the most hardcore mystery fans, perhaps, but for those of you, like me, who focus most on good humor, charming and believable characters, and entertaining situations in our mysteries, then for Pete's sake get to reading Pim!
I have to share this little snippet from Lucy's investigations (again, no spoilers) because it shows a side of her I imagine most of us can relate to. Under the guise of trying to track down a book on poisonous plants that may or may not have a bearing on the case, Lucy seizes the opportunity to examine a neighbor's bookcase (as who among us would not?!):
The books on the desk were a dictionary, Thom's Directory, and Debrett. Lucy always wanted to see what people read, and, when she had finished telephoning, she could not resist going over to the bookshelf. It was full of recent publications, Book Society choices and bestsellers that Lucy had heard of and not read. She admired the effect of all the bright new bindings, which she could not help contrasting with the shabby collection in the garden room at Annalee Lodge. There was no sign of Linnaeus's copy of Poisonous Plants.
Norah had been listening for Miss Bex to finish with the telephone. She opened the study door just as Lucy was on her knees inspecting the bottom shelf. "Were you looking for something, madam?" she asked
SHEILA PIM, Creeping Venom (1946)
After my success with Common or Garden Crime, I found myself drawn inexorably to Pim's second mystery, and anyone who can resist this scene-setting from the opening pages of Creeping Venom, is a stronger or more jaded reader than I:
This was the flower show held in Brainborough in June, 1945; not allowed to be called the Victory Flower Show because of Irish neutrality, but indicating all the same that Brainborough knew the war was over. Brainborough is a small place, sequestered, calm, not like anywhere you read about in the newspapers, and not less satisfied with itself on that account. But Brainborough people do take an interest in the outside world. The war in Europe was over. There had not been a local flower show since it began. Everybody felt it would be nice to hold one, and that it would fill a certain need of something to talk about. As things turned out, the flower show was hardly used up as a topic before it was eclipsed by the mystery of Miss Hampton's death. Not long after that was cleared up came the first news of the atomic bomb. Luckily these events were evenly spaced out, as Brainborough does not like too many things happening at once.
This one again has a poisoning theme, as old Miss Hampton, who has acquired some giant snails from the flower show so that she can relish having them for dinner, perishes from the deadly poison with which the snails were laced. (Her dinner guests, fortunately, were less enthusiastic about eating snails, so no one else becomes ill.)
This time around, the "detective" is Tim Linacre, a young cousin of the deceased who imagines himself pursuing a career as a great detective. Although Tim's likeable enough, and the village characters are every bit as entertaining as those in Common or Garden Crime, I found myself missing the delightful middle-aged Lucy Bex, who is likely to have been (according to Rue Morgue's website) a self-portrait of Pim herself, and who was a particularly charming character with whom to solve a murder. Then, too, some mystery fans might find the solution here slightly anti-climactic, though it is certainly clever and—for me, at least—unforeseen. But despite these minor caveats, all of Pim's wit and charm are thoroughly on display here, often dropped into the text in passing, as here, when Miss Hampton's secretary must explain Miss Hampton's reluctance to be social to a disliked neighbor:
Mrs. De Vigne was at that moment tattling out on to the gravel, and Priscilla, seeing that the visitor had been well within earshot, tried to be extra civil in her reception. She explained that Miss Hampton was "changing." Whether this referred to her clothes, her mind, or the inevitable change that goes with decay in the hymn, it was unnecessary to say.