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Monday 5 April 2021

Golden Age - Forgotten Detectives

 by Carol Westron

 Apologies to those of you who were expecting the next instalment in my Where Are They Now? series of articles. Pressure of my own writing and the panels and workshops connected to Portsmouth Bookfest, especially Mystery Fest 2021, has meant that I didn’t have time to continue it this month, but it will be continued in the Mystery People June issue.

Forgotten Detectives: George and Dominic Felse

Many readers have heard of Ellis Peters, in fact she is better known under this pseudonym than she is by her own name, Edith Pargeter or any of the other pseudonyms she used in her early writing career. She had written 43 books in various genres between 1937 and 1977, but most people only know her as the author of the successful and popular Brother Cadfael mysteries. The first Cadfael novel, A Morbid Taste for Bones, was published in 1977 and after that Peters’ writing fate was sealed. As she herself explained in the Foreword to A Rare Benedictine in 1988: ‘Brother Cadfael sprang to life suddenly and unexpectedly when he was already approaching sixty, mature, experienced, fully armed and seventeen years tonsured. He emerged as the necessary protagonist when I had the idea of deriving a plot for a murder mystery from the true history of Shrewsbury Abbey in the twelfth century, and needed the high mediaeval equivalent of a detective, an observer and agent of justice in the centre of the action. I had no idea then what I was launching on the world, nor to how demanding a mentor I was subjecting myself. Nor did I intend a series of books about him, indeed I went on immediately to write a modern detective novel and  returned to the twelfth century only when I could no longer resist the temptation to shape another book around the massacre of the garrison by King Stephen... From then on Brother Cadfael was well into his stride and there was no turning back.’

 With the arrival of Cadfael, Peters’ fate was sealed but so also was the fate of George and Dominic Felse, the father and son who had been Ellis Peters’ main detective protagonists for almost two decades. It is true that, as Peters said, she wrote another Felse book in 1978 but after that she devoted herself to Cadfael, producing one or two books a year until Brother Cadfael’s Penance in 1994, shortly before her death.

I enjoy the Cadfael novels, and I believe they made a significant contribution to the development of historical mysteries and that the world of detective fiction would be much poorer without them. I’m not complaining that Peters devoted herself to Cadfael, but I do think it’s a pity that the Felse investigations were not merely abandoned but have been almost forgotten. They deserve better than that.

When the reader first meets George Felse he is a police sergeant and the local bobby in the fictional village of Comerford on the English/Welsh border. He is an intelligent, methodical and tenacious investigator, and an attractive man, ‘long and easy and thin, and physically rather elegant in his heedless fashion.’ Throughout the span of the novels, time treats George well, and when a stranger first encounters him in a much later novel, City of Gold and Shadows (1973) she sees, ‘He looked like a local man, at home and unobtrusive in this comfortable country room as he would have been in the border landscape outside. He was tall and thin, a leggy lightweight in a dark-grey suit, with a pleasant, long, cleanshaven face, and short hair greying at the temples and receding slightly from a weathered brown forehead.’

George’s wife, Bunty, gave up a promising career as an opera singer to marry George and has never shown any signs of regretting her decision, as a man meeting her for the first time realises:
‘the moment he set eyes on her he stopped wondering if she had any lingering doubts about her bargain. She was one of the few people he’d ever seen who looked as if they had never regretted anything in their lives. She was … a slender person of medium height, with a shining cap of glossy hair the colour of ripe conkers, and a few engaging silvery strands coiled in the red here and there. Her eyes, large and brightly hazel, looked straight into his’
(The House of Green Turf, 1969).

In the early books, Bunty acts as the mediator between George and their young son, Dominic, she is the voice of reason and reconciliation, although occasionally she exercises firm maternal discipline, usually when Dominic has frightened her by his recklessness. George talks to her about his cases and she has an incisive mind that often casts a new light on aspects of the matter that George has not considered. Bunty and George are a team in all aspects of their lives together, whether it is discussing murder or fulfilling social obligations:

‘“Now I suppose we’d better circulate, hadn’t we?”
“Left or right for you?” asked George obligingly.
“You know me, always inclined left. I’ll see you round the other side.”’ (Rainbow’s End, 1978.)

George and Bunty have one child, Dominic, whom the reader first encounters as a twelve-year-old and, through the thirteen books, we follow his life through to when he is in his early twenties.

Dominic has inherited qualities from both of his parents: his father’s tenacity and his mother’s intuition, although in appearance he is more her child than George’s:
‘The two faces, cheek to cheek in the mirror, were almost absurdly alike, oval, fair-complexioned, with freckled noses and large, bright hazel eyes...’ with ‘two thick thatches of chestnut hair...’ (A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs, 1965)

Although Dominic is attracted to several girls in the earlier books, it is when he’s a student, reading English Literature at Oxford, that he meets his first serious girlfriend, Theodosia Barber, known to her friends as Tossa, and this relationship remains strong throughout the rest of the series.

Amongst her other writing, Peters had written several stand-alone crime fiction novels before she started writing the Felse mysteries in 1951, and for a decade it seemed as though the first Felse story, Fallen Into the Pit, was destined to be another stand-alone. Presumably, Peters took the title of Fallen Into the Pit from Psalm 57: ‘they have digged a pit before me, into the midst whereof they are fallen themselves,’ and this is appropriate for a book that has as its background the brooding darkness of the ftermath of world war. Fallen Into the Pit is set in 1949 and the Second World War still hangs heavily in the minds of a people changed forever by what they have experienced.

Sergeant George Felse’s task is to keep order in this rural part of England. This is not made easier by the presence of the returning soldiers and the refugees of many nations ‘whose war-time alliance was just falling apart into a hundred minor incompatibilities.’ Even more problematic are the few Prisoner of War German soldiers who, when released, have chosen to stay in England: ‘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.’

 One of these young Germans is murdered, and far from being ‘a good type’, it is evident that he was a bully and a blackmailer who has made several enemies in the area, which means there are numerous suspects for George Felse to sift through. A second murder narrows down the pool of suspects, but still George has not enough evidence to charge the person he believes is responsible. However, a lot of the book’s action belongs to Dominic, George’s twelve-year-old son. Dominic is precociously intelligent but, more important, is also developing an instinctively honourable sense of what is right and what is wrong. It is Dom whom the reader first meets, it is Dom who finds the body of the murdered man, it is Dom who discovers some significant evidence, and it is Dom who recklessly sets a trap for the killer and very nearly ends up as the killer’s next victim. Fortunately, George has been following some rather more orthodox clues to the same conclusion and is there to save him, along with several of the locals who have suffered so much from the evil that pervaded their village.

It was ten years after Fallen Into the Pit that Peters wrote another novel featuring the Felse family. However, Death and the Joyful Woman (1961) is set only two years after Fallen Into the Pit, when Dominic, who is now fourteen, again opens the action. Dom is returning from his piano lesson in Comerbourne, the nearest town to his home village of Comerford, when he encounters beautiful young heiress Kitty Norris and falls head-over-heels in love with her in the overwhelming way of adolescence. When Alfred Armiger, a wealthy, vulgar and unpleasant man is murdered, Kitty is the prime suspect. This causes Dom to have the most serious disagreement he has ever had with his policeman father and leads him into drastic and dangerous action in an attempt to prove her innocence.

One of the great delights of Peters’ writing is the rich majesty of her prose and the clever subtleties of her allusions. Here the Joyful Woman could refer to Kitty as Dominic first saw her, dancing barefoot along the broad rail of the Comerbourne Boat Club: ‘Dominic had never seen anyone so incandescent with gaiety.’ But it also refers to the original inn sign of the public house that Armiger had renamed The Jolly Barmaid when he turned it into one of his road-houses. The original inn sign has been over-painted and it takes Armiger’s estranged son, himself an artist, to recognise its true beauty: ‘The Joyful Woman … stood in all her early English simplicity and subtlety, draped in a blue mantle over a saffron robe, all her hair drawn back austerely under a white veil. She leaned back to balance the burden she carried, clasping her body with those hands feeble as lilies, and the symbolic image of the unborn son stood upright in her crossed palms. She looked up and laughed for joy. There was no one else in the picture with her, there was no one else in the world; she was complete and alone, herself a world.’

In 1964 Peters published Flight of a Witch, in which Dominic is seventeen and George has just been promoted to the rank of Detective Inspector. In 1965 she published A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs, in which Dom is eighteen, has just finished school and is on holiday with his parents in Cornwall. In both of these books Dominic plays a central role, although it is George that solves the crimes. A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs marks a turning point in the Felse mysteries because from now on Dominic is not a child, whom his parents need to protect, guide and at times discipline, he is an adult who takes responsibility for his own actions.

The first Dominic Felse solo investigation was published in 1966. In The Piper on the Mountain, Dominic first meets Theodosia Barber, always known as Tossa, a fellow student at Oxford University, and is immediately attracted to her. Tossa’s reaction is more complex, partly because of her own relationship experiences: her father had died when she was twelve and her beautiful, self-centred, actress mother had married again. Tossa had never liked her step-father but when he is killed in a climbing accident in Czechoslovakia, she is convinced that it was not as simple as it seemed and she is determined to discover the truth. Tossa is used to coping with things on her own but, even though she does not confide in him, Dominic is acutely aware of her and is determined to help her and keep her safe.

Only once more, in Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Heart (1967), do George and Dominic share an investigation. Dominic and his girlfriend attend a folk music weekend at Follymead, a local residential music centre. Several renowned folk musicians have been employed for the weekend and, from the start there is the tension of jealousy; most of which is focused on the most famous performer, Lucien Galt. ‘Dark as a gypsy, with heavy brows and arrogant eyes, built like a dancer, light-framed and quick in movement, intolerant of too close approach, and scornful of adulation as of any other stupidity, he carried his nature in his looks, and took no trouble to moderate its

impact.’ The emotions that Galt evokes range from the envy of a less talented television personality for a superstar, to a complex web of sexual and emotional jealousies centred around his relationships, which inevitably ends in tragedy. When George Felse is called in to investigate, Dominic and Tossa do everything they can to assist him.

The next Felse novel, The Grass Widow’s Tale  (1968) is in many ways a strange outlier in the series because the central character is not George or Dominic but Bunty. It is interesting to note that the cover label declares it to be a ‘Sergeant Felse Investigates’ book, although George is now a Detective Inspector and it is Bunty who does all the crime-busting. The story starts with a Bunty who is very different from the previous books; depressed because George and Dominic are both away on her forty-first birthday, Bunty goes out by herself and meets a young man with a dangerous secret. When Bunty and her new friend are in the power of evil, ruthless men, all of Bunty’s fighting spirit and love of life floods back. ‘Bunty uttered a brief, furious cry, and flung herself across Luke’s helpless form, spreading her own arm and shoulder to ward off the blow. The face that glared up at Fleet, with bared teeth and flashing eyes, was the face of the antique women that Caesar respected, the red-haired Celtic Amazon who emerged at need to fight shoulder to shoulder with her menfolk, huge, noble and daunting. Bunty’s Welsh ancestry went back beyond the small dark men. She saw Fleet start back from her in astonishment, almost in dread, so unused was he to people who forget to be afraid.’

 After The Grass Widow’s Tale, Peters roughly alternated the books in which George and Dominic were the investigators. The George Felse novels are The House of Green Turf (1969), The Knocker on Death’s Door (1970), City of Gold and Shadows (1973) and Rainbow’s End (1978). They all start and mainly stay in the Comerbourne area, although The House of Green Turf (1969) culminates in Austria. The Knocker on Death’s Door and Rainbow’s End are both set in Mottisham, a village that has managed to keep its own remoteness and its own unique identity, which causes problems for the detectives investigating crimes there: ‘“There isn’t a native up there who wouldn’t give every other native an alibi, as against the aliens.”’

By the time of The Knocker on Death’s Door, George is now in his early fifties and has become a Detective Chief Inspector and head of Comerbourne CID. Rainbow’s End was published in 1978, a year after the advent of Brother Cadfael signalled the end of the Felse mysteries.

The novels that feature Dominic Felse as the detective have far more exotic settings, featuring two countries that Peters loved and knew well. The Piper On the Mountain is mainly set in Czechoslovakia and Mourning Raga (1969) and Death to the Landlords (1972) are set in India.

In Mourning Raga Tossa’s actress mother arranges for Tossa and Dominic to escort her co-star’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Anjli, to live with her father in Dehli. It is a neat piece of contrasting characterisation that Tossa’s mother arrives at the airport to see them off ‘booted and cased in leather dyed to fabulous shades of purple and iris, with something like a space-helmet on her extremely shapely little head and Ariel’s formidable and lovely make-up on her clever faun’s face.’ However, Tossa’s and Dominic’s cases are ‘full of hurriedly assembled cottons and medium weight woollens, mostly organised out of nowhere by Dominic’s mother’.

Dominic and Tossa fall in love with the warmth and colour of India, but soon they discover a different, darker side to a country filled with poverty, violence and desperation, for Anjli’s father is missing and soon they are contending with murder and kidnapping in a desperate struggle to save Anjli, while being uncertain who, other than each other, they can trust.

In Death to the Landlords (1972), Dominic has returned to India while Tossa is finishing her studies in England. He is working at the Native Indian Agricultural Mission on one of their farms: ‘“Doing anything – driving, messenger-boy, vet’s assistant, whatever’s needed. But mostly I seem to have become the district tractor-mechanic.”’ He is on leave from the farm, touring the country with a casual acquaintance, Larry Preisinger, and their courier Lakshman Ray, when they meet up with Patti Galloway and Priya Madhaven, who are also travelling. A casual agreement to share a boat to watch the wildlife on the Periyar Lake ends in trauma when they discover the wreck of the private boat of a ruthless, exploitative landlord, which has been destroyed in an explosion that killed the landlord and his boat-boy. At first it is assumed that the boat-boy belonged to a radical group whose rallying cry is ‘Kill the Landlords’, but as tragedy follows Dominic and his companions on their travels, it seems as if the simple explanation is not necessarily the true one.

It is in these last books that Dominic comes of age as a detective and as an adult, especially in the last book featuring him, where he is the one who keeps his head and acts rationally and is the only person outside the police force who realises the truth.

It is hard to know why the Felse books have been almost forgotten. Most of them are good mysteries with excellent characterisation. Peters has a remarkable ability to turn preconceptions on their head and slip a quiet  killer that nobody expects under the reader’s radar, although she always plays fair and offers subtle clues. Peters once said that she was not very good at villains, but this was selling herself short. She was very good at offering us objectionable characters, but it is true that these often ended up as the victims; in both the Felse and Cadfael books, she was exceptional at twisting the images so that the charming character is revealed as a sociopath and the quiet, apparently uninteresting person in the background turns out to be innocent and fundamentally decent. However, it is true that often in the Felse novels, as afterwards in some of the Cadfael books, the killer turns out to be not nearly as villainous as was first thought. It is these subtleties, as well as her magnificent prose, that make Peters’ books such a delight to read.

Also. the books are well worth reading as social documents. Peters’ descriptions of a time and attitudes that are now past offer wonderful insights, whether it is life in a rural community just after the war or the pleasures and absurdities of a residential folk festival. Peters used her books to share her passion for opera, classical music and archaeology; her love for her own border country pulses through her writing, but so does her affection and understanding of other countries, the essence of which has now disappeared. She had Czechoslovakian friends and visited their country many times, but she also spent some time in India. The Beatles made their much-publicised trip to India in 1968 to study transcendental meditation, which opened the floodgates for young people, searching for a new meaning for their lives, to follow in their pop heroes’ footsteps. When India was not the Promised Land that they expected, many of them blamed the country for their disappointment. Peters encapsulates this, along with the poverty and inequality that blights India. However, her own protagonist, Dominic, returned to India for a very different reason, as he explains to those who are blaming the country for their disillusionment. ‘“No, India didn’t let me down. That’s why I came back. But to work not to meditate.” He was aware that might sound a trifle superior, but that was something he couldn’t help.’ (Death to the Landlords, 1972)

All of Peters’ Felse books are enjoyable, but, in my opinion, her books set in India are especially gripping. Peter is never afraid of rich, elegant prose, but India helps to bring this even more to the fore, as she describes India’s
finest aspect in the person of one holy and yet eminently practical man:

‘Another figure emerged suddenly from behind the hut, a diminutive, fleshless figure in yellow robes that clung to his body wetly and glistened as he moved. He walked as rapidly as Purushottam, and on a converging course. Round the corner of the hut he came, and at a distance of a few feet from the shutter he stepped deliberately into the path between the levelled rifle and its target, blotting out Purushottam from view. There was nothing in the sights of the rifle now but his bony body and the saffron folds of his robe.

The Swami Premanathanand, to whom violence was impossible, was fighting this last engagement in his own way and with his own unique weapon, a finite body, interposed at the last moment between death and its victim.’ (Death to the Landlords, 1972)

All of the Felse Mysteries are available on Kindle and many are also available as paperbacks.


Carol Westron is a successful author and a Creative Writing teacher.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  Her first book The Terminal Velocity of Cats was published in 2013. Since then she has since written 5 further mysteries. Carol recently gave an interview to Mystery People. To read the interview click on the link below.
To read a review of Carol latest book
This Game of Ghosts click on the title. 

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