Miss Tither, an elderly spinster who lives in the village of Hilary Magna, is widely regarded by her neighbors as a judgmental pest. She has routinely stuck her nose into their affairs, revealing perceived infidelities and berating those who are not religious with unwanted debate as well as pamphlets and tracts. Few in the village like her but, being a small community, there is shock when she is discovered drowned in the vicar’s cesspit.
Bellairs introduces us to a broad cast of possible suspects, most of whom she has wronged in some way. Given the complexity of the case, the local police decide to request that Scotland Yard provide some help, although they are careful to request someone with an understanding of country ways. Scotland Yard sends Inspector Littlejohn to investigate.
Right up front I want to acknowledge that this book does something I find deeply frustrating in novels: it features whole passages of speech from multiple characters written in phonetic dialect. This in itself is not enough for me to write off a book – after all, my favorite novel, Wuthering Heights, contains considerable amounts of dialogue styled in a rough Yorkshire voice – but I do find that approach frustrating for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, I rarely feel that the phonetic spellings produce an accurate rendering of a style of speech. More importantly though, it becomes a distraction as the reader is forced to devote much of their time to simply figuring out what on earth a character is saying. In this book a significant portion of the characters, including the village constable, are represented in this way which mostly served to distract me from other facets of the story.
On a more positive note, the manner of the crime is quite striking and the choice of Miss Tither’s final resting place is perhaps an example of the slightly subversive tone to be found in much of the novel. Some of Bellairs’ commentary can be rather amusing and the various village types are all well observed.
Other elements of the plotting seem a little shallow though and the story suffers a little from its clues being too clearly flagged to the reader. One instance of this is particularly frustrating as it involves a familiar Golden Age plotting trick that becomes very clear when highlighted for the reader directly in dialogue and once that point is settled on the rest falls into place very easily. While I am normally excited when I figure out the solution of a crime, here I felt the author had gifted it to me which was not particularly satisfying.
This is a shame because there is much here to admire. Bellairs writes some genuinely witty prose and creates a variety of striking and entertaining secondary characters to enjoy. The actual process of the investigation is well thought out and there is some solid detection work carried out both by Littlejohn and his helper in the city.
One of my favorite sequences involves a character named Cromwell carrying out a series of linked interviews. It is a nice piece of procedural detective work that is not overwritten but features both some fun examples of Bellairs’ wit and character observation and also some useful information that feeds into the broader case.
Unfortunately wit and investigation structure were unable to overcome my frustrations with the story drawing too much attention to one of the most important clues or with the mangled attempts at replicating country voices in prose. While the opening is strong and I thought there were some very solid moments, the piece did not capture my imagination the way I had hoped and once I had figured out the solution it struggled to hold my attention.
Having voiced my disappointment with this story, there were aspects of this book I enjoyed and I have already added some other Bellairs works to my to read pile. I am hoping that my next dip into his work proves a better match for me.