Friday, February 23, 2024

"I intend to count for quite a long time yet": MRS. PHILIP CHAMPION DE CRESPIGNY, The Missing Piece (1927)

I am still quite fairly active, and to climb in over a window-sill would have presented no difficulties. I had always been a great walker, and had even done a bit of climbing in Switzerland when I was a girl, and a man proposed to me once because he saw me take a five-barred gate with a jumping-pole. I never could quite understand why he should have regarded that particular feat as a promising basis for married felicity; I remember thinking at the time what a funny thing a man was when he fell in love, and pictured myself as time went on continuing to jump five-barred gates in a desperate effort to revive his waning affections. Anyway, I said no, and later on he married a girl who hung upside down from the roof in a music-hall in black satin tights, and dropped into a tank on the ground floor, so, according to his apparent standards of woman's true worth, he must have been much happier with her than he would have been with me.

This was another recent interlibrary loan that resulted from the research I've been doing to revamp and expand my woefully neglected Mystery List. De Crespigny was added to my author list at least as far back as 2017, but I'm afraid that nothing about her jumped out at me at the time as of particular interest—perhaps particularly because I noted that some of her later works, and her memoir, were increasingly influenced by her interest in Spiritualism. She seems to have been an artist herself, and to have begun her writing career with non-fiction, followed in the 1900s by several historical romances featuring feisty heroines, published several novels for Mills & Boon in the 1910s (including some with supernatural themes), and then turned to mysteries in the 1920s. Tangled Evidence (1924) was praised as "ingenious and thrilling" by none other than Arthur Conan Doyle, and A Case for the C.I.D. (1933) seems to have had an innovative twist in regard to its primary murder. But it was The Missing Piece (1927) which most leapt out at me (quite happily, since none of the others were available in U.S. libraries), which from contemporary reviews I established had humorous elements and featured a chatty spinster as amateur detective. Could anything be more up my alley?

Such discoveries, of course, very often don't pan out, and I've had more than my share of duds lately (part of the reason I haven't been reviewing so much, though I suppose I should do some short duds posts as a sort of "don't bother" to other readers). But the stars were aligned this time, and although The Missing Piece is surely no great shakes for fans of traditional, hardcore puzzlers, it was really great fun for me from a character and humor standpoint.

Celia Gaythorn is the spinster detective in question, a clear-headed if occasionally rambling, avid whodunnit fan, who provides a home for her young, ultra-modern niece Naomi. Naomi is forever organizing more or less ridiculous committees for progressive causes, and she finds her aunt old-fashioned (of course, or what would be the fun?) and has a recurring habit of leaving rooms before Celia has finishes her sometimes circuitous thoughts. Despite her love for mysteries, though, Celia finds it rather more stressful dealing with the real-life murder of a young friend of Naomi's, who has mysterious tropical origins and has been working as an artists' model. Even worse is that (quite unlikable) Inspector Codlington, who's handling the case, has settled on the village baker as prime suspect:

"I only hoped the inspector had not yet put his threat into effect and arrested the poor man—and if he had what on earth should we all do for bread in the morning?"

Along the way, we meet an array of villagers of all classes and types, and have quite a pleasant trip. The humor isn't overdone, but there are certainly some giggle- and grin-inducing moments. Sadly, there is also a single racist reference, though not one directed at any particular character.

But the greatest strength of the novel is Celia herself, who, we eventually learn, is not even going to remain a spinster for long:

…no doubt you have visualized an elderly, stout person wearing first clearers and already placed upon that undesirable shelf that is waiting for people who no longer count.

But I am not like that.

What I am exactly like I shall leave to your imagination, and I intend to count for quite a long time yet, certainly in my own house. It's true I have grey hair and am not what the new generation would call young—but then they call nothing young that is any older than themselves—and youth really is not just a question of years—and I am engaged to be married to the best and dearest man in the world. It may not have much to do with Everal Deeping's murder, but it was an old romance.

How could we resist such a character? (Though perhaps we might be taken aback when we learn, later on, that she's not yet forty, though as she says, "to nineteen forty is Methuselah.")

I'll certainly check out other works by de Crespigny as the opportunity arises.


  1. What an amazing author name! How can I not have heard of her? One could hardly forget a name like that. She will now most likely pop up everywhere....

  2. Sounds like a good one! And please do a duds round-up!

  3. What does 'wearing first clearers' mean?


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