This locked room mystery comes at the suggestion of JJ, author-in-chief of The Invisible Event, for which many thanks (I think). Its central conundrum is certainly an absolute doozy: how can a murderer flee a room in which the only exit is blocked by an immovable piece of stonemasonry? Told in a light, breezy style, this is a cosy mystery that refuses to take itself seriously and which would make a great episode of the Midsomer Murders TV series. We begin on a hot July day …
I submit this review for Bev’s 2016 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“If, Crosby,” said Sloan letting out a long sigh, “you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning, that’s all.”
Set in the fictional county of Calleshire, the case involves the disappearance of the recently widowed Richard Mallory Tindall, and with him a top secret report from his R&D company. When a body is found inside a church tower, crushed by a huge statue known as the ‘Fitton Bequest’ that is blocking the only exit, the question is: who knocked out the man before topping the statue on to him and how did they escape from the sealed room? And why kill the man in such an elaborate fashion? And who stood to gain – his daughter, Fenella? Her Italian boyfriend, Giuseppe? What about the report for United Mellemetics that has gone missing? And what about the man who wanted to buy Tindall’s company? And for whom did the dead man buy an expensive pair of jade and diamond clips? And then there is a second murder …
The Superintendent groaned irritably. “Not another of those locked room mysteries, Sloan, I hope. I can’t stand them either.”
The case is investigated by Detective Inspector Christopher Dennis Sloan, Aird’s long-running protagonist who manages to solve crimes despite the annoying interventions of his boss, Superintendent Leeyes, and Crosby, his very dim constable. The basic puzzle is pretty good but the novel is relentlessly padded out with one red herring after another, with most of the subsidiary plotlines proving to have nothing at all to do with the central mystery. It is just as well then that the dialogue is often amusing and the elaborate solution also proves satisfying, though it is built on an incredibly risky plan that could have failed incredibly easily. Good fun and jolly overall, but at 200 pages, really little more than a padded out novella.
Like a sticky snail, the Superintendent strewed a trail of imperfectly assimilated concepts behind him: not only did they show where he had been but they were a nuisance to the unwary.
The Chronicles of Calleshire featuring Inspector Sloan
- The Religious Body (1966)
- Henrietta Who (1968)
- The Complete Steel (1969) [aka The Stately Home Murder]
- A Late Phoenix (1970)
- His Burial Too (1973)
- Slight Mourning (1975)
- Parting Breath (1977)
- Some Die Eloquent (1979)
- Passing Strange (1980)
- Last Respects (1982)
- Harm’s Way (1984)
- A Dead Liberty (1986)
- The Body Politic (1990)
- A Going Concern (1993)
- Injury Time (1994)
- After Effects (1996)
- Stiff News (1998)
- Little Knell (2001)
- Amendment of Life (2003)
- Chapter and Hearse (2004)
- A Hole in One (2005)
- Losing Ground (2007)
- Past Tense (2010)
- Dead Heading (2014)
For more information about Aird and her books, visit: www.catherineaird.com
I submit this review for Bev’s 2016 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘bird’ category:
***** (2.5 fedora tips out of 5)
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A Most Contagious Game - Catherine Aird
The story is a lovely homage to Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time as well as being an absorbing mystery in its own right. Thomas Harding has been forced to retire because of ill health. He & his wife, Dora, move from London to the village of Easterbrook where they buy the local Elizabethan manor house. Thomas is restless, bored & irritated until the day he discovers a secret room in the house, a priest hole. Even more surprising is the skeleton inside the priest hole. The house was built by a family of Elizabethan Catholics so it's not surprising that the house had a secret room where Catholic priests could be hidden as they travelled around the country saying Mass. The family were forced to sell the house after they were prosecuted as recusants & the Barbary family moved in. The Barbarys owned the Manor for 300 years and, when the skeleton is found to have died about 150 years ago, & to have been murdered, Thomas wants to know who the victim was & who murdered him.
Thomas discovers that the body is that of young Toby Barbary, the 15 year old son of Sir Tobias, who mysteriously disappeared just months before his father's gallant death at Waterloo in 1815. Toby had been hit on the back of the head but why & who could have put his body in the secret room? While Thomas is busy with his researches into history, Easterbrook is transfixed by another murder. Mary Fenny has been found strangled in her bed & her husband, Alan, has disappeared. The police seem quite sure that Alan is guilty but the villagers have very different ideas. Thomas's researches into the history of Easterbrook lead him to some clues about Mary Fenny's murder & he gradually gets to know the villagers & begins to feel less of a stranger.
I loved this book. It's a wonderful combination of history, mystery & village life. I enjoyed the fact that Thomas's researches took place in libraries, churchyards & newspaper archives rather than on the internet. The characters are well-rounded, from the wise Vicar, Cyprian Martindale, to Charlie Ford, electrician & undertaker, to Gladys the household help. There's even a young American, Sir Thaddeus Barbary from Detroit, a nod to Tey's habit of introducing young Americans into her plots wherever she could. He even talks like Brent Carradine in Daughter of Time. Sir Thaddeus, or Tad as he's known, arrives in answer to Thomas's letter to him about when his ancestors left Easterbrook. There's always been a secret shame in the family & Tad, as the last survivor, is determined to find out why his ancestor left England & why his father told him the family was cursed & could never return.
In the Introduction to this edition, Catherine Aird says that she never wrote another stand-alone novel because her publishers wanted more Sloans. What a pity. I believe that Aird was working on a biography of Josephine Tey at some point. Tey was a famously private woman so I imagine the research would be difficult, to say the least. If it's ever published, it would be a must-read for fans of both these fine mystery writers.