JOSEPHINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON, They Died in the Spring (1960)
Anyone who read my recent post that included Josephine Pullein-Thompson's first mystery novel, Gin and Murder, will not be particularly surprised to see me following up now with my reactions to her other two mysteries. Gin and Murder (1959) was one of my favorite mysteries in a while, and I noted even then that I had already ordered copies of both They Died in the Spring (1960) and Murder Strikes Pink (1963).
All three novels feature the murders of fairly loathsome individuals in relatively rural villages or towns, among the horsey upper classes, and in all three Scotland Yard sends Detective Chief Inspector Flecker and his faithful sidekick, Detective-Sergeant Browning, to investigate. In They Died in the Spring, the murder victim is Colonel Barclay, who opens the novel in the middle of a heated parish council meeting at which he has gleefully announced that the cricket field, owned by his family though used by the town since before his father's time, will be ploughed and reserved for his personal use from now on. In fact, Barclay seems to take quite a lot of delight in making the announcement:
"Now, look here, Aubrey, these people wanted a welfare state and, having got it, they can't expect charity as well. I'm taxed practically out of existence to pay for their false teeth, the support of their aged and infirm and the education of their children and then they expect me to provide the village cricket field…"
But the morning after the announcement, Colonel Barclay tells his wife he's going out to check for rabbits in the wood, and he is found later that day in a pool of blood, apparently having had an accident with his gun. This assessment, however, is made less likely by various details, among them the fact the gun he's carrying may not be the same one he left home with. Suspects include his wife, Mary, who is none too distraught about his death, his son, Paul, his daughter, Veronica, and her husband Aubrey (who seem more concerned about their missing home help, Hilda, than with the colonel's death), the local vicar and his wife, and various other residents and neighbors.
As with Gin and Murder, the mystery here is interesting and well-done, but the main attraction is Pullein-Thompson's knack for vivid characters and situations. She's also good at highlighting the social and cultural change taking place in the background of her mysteries' locations, as in this description of the local market town:
Originally no more than a halting place on the route of the wool-bearing pack ponies that travelled south across the county to London, Crossley had been granted a charter in Elizabethan times, year, had remained a picturesque and peaceful market town until the second world war. Since the war, building on the outskirts had doubled the population, comparatively fast trains had made the town and the surrounding countryside a paradise for the more sophisticated commuter, and the traffic on the main London to Bretford road, which passed through the centre of the town, had become a continuous stream, which only slackened at night. The milling crowds had grown too large for the pavements; there was no space for the country housewives to park their cars; the long distance motorists ground their teeth as they joined the High Street's perpetual traffic jam; petrol and diesel fumes scented the air. Above the crush and the noise, the beauty of the Elizabethan and Georgian buildings went unnoticed; the shopkeepers and the house agents grew rich.
But my favorite part of They Died is the returning presence of DCI Flesher and Detective-Sergeant Browning, and this novel includes the single best description of characters' first impressions of the two:
But a moment later Flecker and Browning were ushered in. The three Bretfordshire men rose and, expecting a grizzled veteran, their eyes turned to Browning. Tall and soldierly, well-dressed, with greying hair and an Anthony Eden moustache, he looked like a man to command, but Browning, used to producing this effect, hung back. Saying "Chief-Inspector Flecker?" rather doubtfully, Dobson found himself shaking hands with a younger and much less impressive person. Stockily built and only just tall enough for police regulations, Flecker had dark hair which grew in unruly profusion. His clean-shaven face looked good-natured, his shapeless mouth affable, and only his dark blue eyes gave any hint of intelligence.
Here, as in Pullein-Thompson's other novels, Flecker makes the occasional philosophical observation that is probably more characteristic of more recent crime writers like Ruth Rendell or P. D. James than of the so-called "golden age" of mystery writing that was just wrapping up when Pullein-Thompson was writing. For example, one could hardly imagine Hercule Poirot making the following rather bleak observation about rabbits:
"What Hitler did to the Jews we do to the rabbits," remarked Flecker. "Can any policy of extermination be justifield? I don't know."
"It was them or us," said Browning. "Spreading myxomatosis wasn't a very nice idea, but gassing's humane enough."
"Life to be sure is nothing much to lose, but then it's simpler for rabbits; they don't get bogged down with ethics—and morals and guilt complexes; probably it's a greater loss to them," observed Flecker.
Later, observing the commuters at a train station, he throws in this upbeat tidbit:
The train was late, but Flecker waited contentedly in the station yard. He observed the thin trickle of travellers. The tense, harassed faces of the hurriers, the pessimists who took their mackintoshes despite a cloudless sky; the unsmiling faces of the bowler-hatted city types, living for the moment when they could forget their early morning frustration in The Times. What a mess we've made of life, he thought, surely it was never intended to be like this?
Some readers might find Flecker a bit of a sad sack, but for whatever reason (perhaps I'm a bit of a sad sack myself?), I find his melancholic view of humanity endlessly entertaining and am always delighted to be in his company. Plus, in They Died he begins to reveal a bit of a softer side, as he finds himself surprised by his attraction to Lesley Carlson, a local widow who comes under suspicion in the course of his investigation.
JOSEPHINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON, Murder Strikes Pink (1963)
And of course, having finished They Died in the Spring, I couldn't help but plunge right into my shiny new Greyladies copy of Murder Strikes Pink, Pullein-Thompson's third and (very sadly) final mystery. And once again, I found it hard to resist her largely unsavory, horsey, but quite entertaining characters.
In this one, the murder occurs right off the bat. We have just enough time to witness how loathsome Theodora Thistleton is, as she rampages around a local horse show, insulting and berating various people, before she takes a swig of a thermos full of poisoned milkshake and drops dead, to the heartbreak of no one. As one character puts it, "I'm sure there were dozens of people queuing up to murder her."
|Original cover of Murder Strikes Pink|
The investigation focuses on who at the horse show knew that "T.T." always kept a thermos full of milkshake at the ready, where it was stashed, and who had access to it—as well as who knew that one of her secretaries often drank the milkshake if T.T. decided she didn't want it. Because a good number of the locals of the area were at the horse show, there's no shortage of suspects, including T.T.'s two secretaries, her washed-up rider, her cook (who believes people could spy on her via her radio if she hadn't carefully covered it in newspaper), several neighbors, and the terrible Mrs. Pratt and her talented brood, who always win most of the prizes and use the money to sustain their tenuous existence.
|Josephine Pullein-Thompson, left, with sister Diana|
Once again, Pullein-Thompson's characters are highly entertaining if not terribly likeable, and the mystery is perfectly competent and intriguing, but it's the wonderful DCI Flecker and his Watson, Detective-Sergeant Browning, who are the stars of the show. Here, Flecker's relationship with Lesley Carlson, whom he met in They Died in the Spring, has apparently progressed, though Lesley doesn't appear in this novel, but Flecker is still feeling insecure about it, and his romantic vulnerability adds additional depth and sympathy to his somewhat cynical view of the events and people around him.
But Flecker and Browning are a bit like an old married couple already. Here, as in the earlier novels, the description of Flecker, when the two local policemen first meet him, is ironic:
Murray and Jackson had heard of Flecker, they'd read one or two of his articles in the Police Journal and they remembered seeing a photograph of him in the national press, but they were disappointed when he came into the room; they had expected him to show more signs of success, to look more imposing. Small for a policeman with a stocky figure and an untidy profusion of dark hair, his clean-shaven face looked too amiable, his rather shapeless mouth too affable, for a man of consequence and it was easy to miss the intelligent gleam of his deepset dark blue eyes.
And, much to Browning's chagrin, Flecker still isn't very concerned with order and appearances:
Jackson told his story efficiently. Browning sighed and averted his eyes as Flecker made notes with the disreputable stump of a pencil on the backs of used envelopes. He'll never learn, thought Browning, and they'd think so much more of him if he had a nice propelling pencil and a proper notebook.
And then there's this wonderful exchange from late in the novel (but no spoilers, I promise):
'Do you want to hear about it right away or shall we have dinner?'
'If it's time for dinner we'd better have it,' answered Flecker, and knowing Browning's dislike of going in late and finding all the best dishes off, he hastily put on his coat.
Browning looked at him disapprovingly. 'You can't go down like that, sir,' he said. 'Your tie's under your left ear and as for your hair—'
'Oh hell,' swore Flecker, making for the mirror.
Some of these scenes between Flecker and Browning already make clear that Pullein-Thompson has a sense of humor—though her mysteries are surprisingly hard-edged and cynical about human nature—but the real comic relief in Murder Strikes Pink is Molly Steer, one of the murdered woman's secretaries, who is neurotic and insecure to the point of idiocy, and is forever being taunted and scorned by Joy Hemming, the other secretary (though the tables are turned a bit by the end of the novel). We get a glimpse of her nature even in the opening paragraphs, as she cowers in the shadow of the as-yet-unmurdered Theodora:
As the prize winners, rosetted and applauded, cantered from the ring, Molly Steer, her nervousness increased by the knowledge that her deodorant had ceased to be effective, blundered into speech.
But the most revealing and hilarious performance by poor Molly comes late in the novel, as DCI Flecker is searching for clues in the dead woman's scrapbooks:
Flecker spent the afternoon happily absorbed in the pictorial records of T.T.'s one-sided life. Molly Steer, making frantic efforts not to disturb him, crept in and out at intervals to collect some forgotten paper from filing cabinet or desk; quite unaware that her elephantine creepings were far more disturbing than any normal walk. Her over-zealous efforts for quietude invariably ended by her blundering into a piece of furniture, dropping the stapler or closing the drawers of the metal cabinet with a crash, whereupon she would look anxiously round at Flecker. After the first time, when a stream of abject apologies was invoked by his asking if she had hurt herself, he kept his eyes on the scrapbooks and pretended to be completely engrossed.
Perhaps my hilarity over this scene is in part because I rather relate to poor Molly—I have certainly had my moments of being just about this awkward and clumsy, and just as with Molly, the more I think about my clumsiness and try not to be awkward, the more likely I am to leave havoc and disarray in my wake.
|Back cover blurb of Greyladies edition of Murder Strikes Pink|
I'm so thankful to Shirley at Greyladies for reviving these wonderful mysteries, because if it hadn't been for the fact that a publisher whose books I generally love had reprinted them, I can't imagine I would ever have picked up a mystery set among the horsey set by an author known mainly for her children's books. But I am also sad that, for whatever reason (possibly, according to blogger and mystery scholar Curtis Evans, who blogs at The Passing Tramp, in a comment on my original post, because of the discouragement of her publishers, who may have felt her mysteries were a bit old-fashioned), Pullein-Thompson stopped writing mysteries after publishing only three. I would love to have a bookcase shelf devoted entirely to 30 or 40 of her novels. And at the very least, I wish she could have written one or two more just to get DCI Flecker's romance firmly established—it's terrible not to know for sure that everything works out for him and Lesley, and if so, how love and marriage might affect his tendency to despair over humanity's weaknesses!
But in lieu of that, I will just have to have a periodic re-read of the three novels she did write.