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Tuesday 2 July 2024

‘Midsummer Murder’ by Cecil M. Wills

Published by Galileo,
20 June 2024.
ISBN: 978-1-91553032-5
First published 1956

The action of this story takes place in the cathedral city of Storminster. Typed poison pen letters begin to circulate which make accusations and threats, sometimes raking up the past of their recipients. One letter is the cause of a suicide, and a well-respected local is arrested and put on trial, with apparently damning evidence, following a subsequent murder. Who is the mystery typist, and is the obvious person the murderer? These are questions that occupy the local police as well as the unassuming Reverend Selwyn Sneddicombe who becomes for a short time in cahoots with a reporter on the local paper. The whereabouts and ownership of a typewriter become important matters.

Wills writes in an engaging style, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the early stages of the novel as he gives us portraits of the dramatis personae during a meeting of the committee organizing the cathedral bazaar (your reviewer – an organist – was particularly pleased to read that this was to raise funds for the replacement of the organ). There is the usual collection of local worthies and social climbers with their associated jealousies and snobberies, the women (it must be said) being the worst. The two spinsters at the meeting, for instance, ‘were ladies of uncertain age; and both were narrow in their views; but these were the only points they had in common; for there was bitter rivalry between them.’ The bishop’s wife probably ‘had these ladies in mind when she bewailed the dullness of the worthy.’ Sir Derrick Mathers is ‘an impecunious baronet of ancient lineage and pugnacious temperament.’

The novel becomes a little bogged down for a time three-quarters of the way through with the trial of the suspected murderer, plodding along as it does with a good deal of repetition. One wonders what else is going on at that time (particularly with the Rev. Sneddicombe’s investigations into the letters) given that there seem to be no other suspects, and one also wonders why nobody seems to be interested in discovering the identity of the woman who was apparently present at or shortly before the murder. Fortunately, though, when matters seem to be drifting to a predictable conclusion, our ordained detective gets to the bottom of the mystery via a decent twist.

Despite minor reservations about the court case section, I thoroughly enjoyed the novel. Although published originally in 1956, it is very much in the style of the Golden Age. There is a relatively closed community as well as love interest, one strand of which concerns a pivotal character (Nigel Villiers, a chancer). My pleasure was maintained by descriptions such as ‘Selwyn Sneddicombe was standing in a corner of the room in the attitude of a stag at bay; but there was but a single hound to represent the pack – and she of the female gender,’ and later the splenetic Sir Derrick is seen ‘painting his front door a bilious yellow-brown,’ which seems highly appropriate. All ends well, and for some reason I was reminded of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what fiction means.’
Reviewer: David Whittle

Maitland Cecil Melville Wills (1891-1966) was born in Bristol. He was educated at Charterhouse School, Godalming, Surrey and at Manchester University. In 1915, he married Gladys Aimee Fothergill Hughes. He gained the rank of Captain in the Royal Engineers. He fought in both World Wars and gained the rank of Major-General in the Staff, War Office. He wrote 25 novels which were published between 1934 and 1961.

David Whittle is firstly a musician (he is an organist and was Director of Music at Leicester Grammar School for over 30 years) but has always enjoyed crime fiction. This led him to write a biography of the composer Bruce Montgomery who is better known to lovers of crime fiction as Edmund Crispin, about whom he gives talks now and then. He is currently convenor of the East Midlands Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association.

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