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Friday 10 April 2020

Village Mysteries Post Golden Age

Villainy in the Villages Part Three.
by Carol Westron

In the first two parts of our exploration of the village as a setting in Golden Age Crime Fiction, we considered the use authors made of villages as the scene of a crime, and the characters of the villagers. The very nature of a village, as a place where most inhabitants have known each other all their lives and are instinctively suspicious of strangers and of new innovations, inevitably changes the very nature of the investigation. The sleuth who belongs to the village, or who could fit unobtrusively into village life, often has a great advantage over official investigators.

Chief amongst the Golden Age writers of village mysteries is Agatha Christie, all of whose series detectives investigated village mysteries at some point in their careers. Christie’s Miss Marple is often considered to be synonymous with village mysteries, because she was a resident of the most famous of Golden Age villages, St. Mary Mead. However, Miss Marple’s village investigations were not confined to one small community, and both she and Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver showed a chameleon-like skill in blending into new village settings, as well as into urban situations. Many other Golden Age stalwarts also wrote village mysteries and continued to write in a similar vein long after the Second World War, sometimes documenting the changes that time and conflict had wrought to both villages and villagers. Also, after 1945, a new generation of detective fiction authors emerged, some of whom took the village mystery in innovative and exciting directions.
One late Golden Age author, who continued writing well after the Second World War, is E.C.R. Lorac, and she used the village setting in several of her novels, which featured Detective Inspector Macdonald. Fire in the Thatch (1946) is set towards the end of the Second World War and explores new sources of tension in the Devon village in which it is situated. The initial dissension concerns the fate of Little Thatch, a cottage and smallholding owned by Colonel St Cyres. The Colonel’s town-bred daughter-in-law wants him to rent Little Thatch to friends of her own, ‘“Tommy’s got pots of money and he’d improve it no end,’ but St Cyres has other plans for his property, ‘“I want to put in a tenant who will live in the house and cultivate the land.”’ This difference of opinion about the proper use of the countryside runs throughout the book, and the tension mounts between those holding to the old rural way of life and property developers who wish to buy up the land to build on it. It is one of the motives for murder that Macdonald has to consider when Little Thatch is set on fire and the tenant, installed there by the Colonel, is killed. Fire in the Thatch is not merely an excellent detective novel, it is also filled with subtle social commentary on the changes in country life that have been escalated and exacerbated by the pressures of war.

Lorac took the village mystery to a new level in Murder in the Mill-Race (1952.) Doctor Raymond Ferens’ health suffered during the war and he needs a quiet country practice. When he first sees the village of Millham in the Moor he feels encouraged, and Lorac’s initial description of the village accords with the pictures George Bellairs paints of villages in Provence. ‘Ferens thought, “Why, it’s like a French hill town.” The village was built well and truly, on the top of a hill. Its tall church tower stood out in silhouette against the clear saffron of the western sky, and snow-covered cottage roofs were piled up against the church as though they, too, were aspiring heavenwards. It was a lovely sight...’ However, when the isolation of the village dawns on him, Ferens has doubts about its suitability: ‘“Ten miles from anywhere and nothing but the moor beyond, all the way to the sea.”’

When Ferens and his wife Anne move to Millham in the Moor, they swiftly discover that this isolation is emotional as well as physical. The village is dominated by the chilling Miss Torrington, who prefers to be called Sister Monica. ‘In the doorway, silhouetted against the sunlight, stood a figure so tall and dark and unexpected that Anne had a sudden qualm of discomfort, a sense that she was facing something unreal and utterly unlike anything she had ever known.’ Sister Monica runs the local children’s home and she is a woman who is determined to discover everything about everyone in the village and use it to her advantage. She is also adept as spreading gossip, usually in a sly and oblique way. It is not surprising that Sister Monica is destined to die under suspicious circumstances. When murder takes place in a village so hostile to all Although much of the action in the story is centred around Talboys, the solution to the murder lies in the outsiders, and especially to outsiders from the neighbouring town, the local police find it impossible to investigate. When Scotland Yard is called in, Macdonald has to find a way to discover the secrets of a very private village community. He soon realises that he has to work out which of the villagers had a hidden history that was important enough to make them commit murder. All of the old inhabitants are determined to shield the killer and it is not surprising that the assistance that Macdonald receives is from newcomers, such asAnne and Raymond Ferrens, who have not had the secrecy of the village bred into them all their lives.

Ellis Peters created some superb village mysteries in her series featuring police detective George Felse. In the first of these books, Fallen Into the Pit (1951), Felse is a sergeant living in Comerford, a village that, like the rest of Britain, is struggling to come to terms with the newly ended Second World War. Peters was another author who used detective fiction to describe social changes in the British countryside and achieved this in elegant and evocative prose.
‘Those who had still to linger a year or more of their time away in the tedium of suddenly purposeless armies, or adjust themselves to the fluid situations of other people’s crumbling countries, limped home with more bitter difficulty, to find the fields full of displaced persons, and the shops of a new lingua franca evolved for their benefit, the encrustations of pits suddenly congealed into the nationalised mining industry, whole hills and valleys turn out by the roots under the gigantic caresses of surface mining machinery, and in the upper air of the mind every boundary shifted and every alignment altered.’... ‘Colliers’ sons went back to the pits, and found themselves working side by side with Ukranians, Poles, Czechs, Lithuanians, Letts, whose war-time alliance was just falling apart into a hundred minor incompatibilities; and soon came even the few screened Germans out of their captivity to fester amongst their ex-enemies without being able to reunite them. Nice-looking, stolid young men, hard workers, a good type;but they did not always remember to keep the old “Heil Hitler!” off their tongues; and the leftward-inclined youngster with Welsh blood in his veins and a brother dead in some Stalag or other was liable to notice these things.’ (Fallen Into the Pit, 1951.)

It is Sergeant Felse’s duty to contain this tense situation and when a young German is found dead it is his duty to investigate. This involves probing not merely the festering wounds caused by war but also the long-held secrets of the village of Comerford.

Peters continued to develop the village mystery and in The Knocker on Death’s Door (1970) she created the village of Mottisham, in the district of Middlehope, which despite modern incursions, has at its heart a private and secret essence. Mottisham is in the ‘remote upper end of Middlehope, the rim of the world between England and Wales in these parts.’ (Rainbow’s End, 1978.) Like Lorac’s village of Millham in the Moor, Mottisham is physically isolated and protective of its privacy, but, unlike Millham in the Moor, it does not feel malevolent and it is not totally exclusive regarding newcomers. However, it does have a mischievous way of routing outsiders who wish to discover its secrets. When the local landed family, the Macsen-Martels, donate an ancient door to the church, which they say originally belonged there, the village welcomes into the village all of the sightseers who wish to see it consecrated. However, these people do not have any conception of the truths that those who were born and bred in the area have known all their lives and any attempts to dig too deep are gently discouraged.

Some days after the consecration of the door, a freelance reporter returns to Mottisham, certain that there is a story behind the gift of the door to the church. Soon he is found dead in the church porch. George Felse, now Detective Chief Inspector, is the officer in charge of the case but he knows that he would not get anywhere in Mottisham without the aid of the local officer, Sergeant Moon. This acceptance of the sergeant is underlined by the emotions of the villager who discovered the victim: ‘The relief and security Dave felt at the sight of the big Middlehope sergeant was illuminating; after all, he was only Middlehope at all by marriage, but of his membership in the islanded community there could no longer be any doubt.’

Unlike the villagers of Lorac’s Millham in the Moor, the inhabitants of Mottisham do not know who committed the murder, nor are they willing to allow a murderer to go free, but when the case is solved they close ranks to protect the innocent. ‘The village knew, but the village, which knew so well how to disseminate information, knew also how to keep its own counsel. The reporters came with cameras, loitered, questioned, even extracted answers, which were only later to be seen as useless or mutually destructive.’

In Rainbow’s End (1978), the second book that Peters set in Mottisham, Arthur Everard Rainbow, an ambitious and prosperous antiques dealer, has managed to work his way under the village’s defences and joined ‘the Golf Club, the Arts Association, the Angling Society, and every other body that contained important people among its members, and if he could have got the entry to a club of which God was a member he would have undoubtedly have invited God to his house-warming.’ Later, when Sergeant Moon is talking to George Felse about the newcomer, Felse says, ‘“You’ve frozen out tougher propositions before, though. What’s so special about this one?”
“A hide like a rhinoceros,” said Sergeant Moon succinctly, “and far better insulation. With the money he’s got he can isolate himself inside his own world, apart from functions where he has to appear officially. He can bring in his own society, be independent of us and anything we may feel about him. Do you realise we’ve never had a rich man living among us since the eighteenth century? The mistake was ever to let him in. Now he’s in I’m damned if we know how to get rid of him.”

Moon is afraid that if this newcomer continues to ignore the identity of Middlehope, somebody will find a violent way to get rid of him and, sure enough, Rainbow falls to his death from the Mottisham church tower. When Superintendent George Felse attempts to investigate Rainbow’s death, the village is not overtly obstructive, but it draws close together in an attempt to protect its own.

Barbara, Rainbow’s young, beautiful and wild trophy wife, never pretended that her marriage to Rainbow was anything other than a business agreement and she is gloriously happy in a new relationship with a native of Middlehope, William Swayne, known as Willie the Twig. Surprisingly, Barbara has been accepted into the village community without reserve, although initially she doesn’t realise it when she warns Willie that Felse is unlikely to accept the alibi that they are giving each other for the time of Rainbow’s death. ‘“Idiot,” said Willie, just as buoyantly, “do you think that makes us any different from all the rest of Middlehope? There isn’t a native up there who wouldn’t give every other native an alibi, as against the aliens... That puts us just alongside all the rest. Even if we happen to be telling the truth! In any case, where else would we want to be?”’

The village mystery grew and developed a great deal between the Golden Age novels of Christie and Wentworth and the late 1970s when Ellis Peters wrote Rainbow’s End. Contemporary authors continue to use the village as a setting for their mysteries. Some find it an excellent vehicle for subtle social commentary, while others rejoice in the ability to bring together a community of eccentric characters to create lively cosy crime stories. However, one thing has not altered, the village mystery continues to place a small community and their secrets at the heart of the crime and the investigation.

The British Library Crime Classics are republishing several of E.C.R. Lorac’s books and Fire in the Thatch and Murder in the Mill-Race are both available in paperback and on Kindle.

Ellis Peters’ George Felse books are no longer available new in book form, although they are available second-hand. They are all available on Kindle.
Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
 To read a review of Strangers and Angels click on the title.
To read about her latest book see below

This Game of Ghosts by Carol Westron

It has taken seven years for Honey Alder to regain her life after the illness and death of her teenage son, but now she has her anxiety and depression under control.
She has returned to her teaching job and happily shares the care of her infant grandson with her student daughter.
One casualty that cannot be restored is her marriage, and Honey is aware that no new
relationship can compare to the love she’d shared with her ex-husband, Matt. Honey’s plans for spending the Easter weekend at a local folk festival are disrupted when Matt arrives unexpectedly at her house. The story he tells her about being haunted by a strange old woman seems implausible, but Honey knows that Matt does not lie.
Are Matt’s strange visions an effect of mental illness? Or a cruel trick? Or is he indeed being haunted by a phantom from his past? To save the man she once loved, Honey must find the strength to play and win this perilous game of ghosts.

Published 17 February 2020 in paperback

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