Originally published in 1968
Calleshire Chronicles #2
Preceded by The Religious Body
Followed by The Stately Home Murder
Early one morning in the quiet English village of Larking, the body of a woman named Mrs. Jenkins is found in the road. Miles away, her daughter, Henrietta, receives the bad news while working in the university library. Poor Mrs. Jenkins appears to have been the victim of a horrible car accident.
When an autopsy proves not only that this was no accident but also that Mrs. Jenkins had never had a child, young Henrietta’s life is thrown upside down. If she’s not Mrs. Jenkins’s daughter, then who is she? It’s up to Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan of the Calleshire police force to bring the murderer to justice—and a sense of order back to Henrietta’s life.
Henrietta Who? has been on my To Read list ever since I read The Religious Body, the first installment in the series. I had really enjoyed that book, particularly its rural setting, and was interested to see Aird turn her focus to other aspects of life in the countryside. It ended up taking me far longer than I had hoped to get around to it but I quickly found myself engrossed in the mystery.
It begins in the early morning as a postman is completing his rounds. While riding his bicycle he happens upon the body of Mrs. Jenkins lying in the street. It is clear that she is dead and that she has been hit by a car. The natural assumption is that it was a tragic accident – a hit and run caused by her walking home in the dark. When the post-mortem shows she was hit twice by cars travelling in opposite directions it seems clear that she has been murdered.
That is not the most shocking piece of news conveyed by the pathologist however. He states with certainty that Mrs. Jenkins had never had a child which comes as news to her daughter, Henrietta, who has just returned from university to identify the body. With everything she has ever known called into question, Henrietta works with Detective Inspector Sloan to try and learn her own identity and discover who killed her mother and why.
While there is a murder to be solved, I think it is fair to suggest that the question of Henrietta’s parentage is the focus of the novel. I say that not only because of the title Aird gave her book but because there is never really any attempt made to define a set of suspects or to seriously assess their movements or motivations. Instead Sloan appears to adopt the idea that solving the question of parentage will, in the process, solve the disappearance.
It is an interesting puzzle because it involves delving back several decades to look for answers. There are some physical clues of course such as a set of medals and a photograph of a man said to be Henrietta’s father in uniform. None of them on their own are enough to solve the mystery however. Instead Sloan will have to rely on the local gossip to start to source the leads Henrietta needs to discover the truth about her childhood which, in turn, will help her make progress in the murder case.
I continued to enjoy the company of Detective Inspector Sloan who comes from the humane and competent school of police detectives. He is not particularly colorful, lacking either strong flaws or strange habits, and we get little sense of his life beyond the job. Instead we get a strong sense of his empathy for the young woman he is helping and of his overall competence as a sleuth with his ability to make perceptive observations and base logical deductions from them.
The puzzle aspect of the story is interesting in its own right given the strange circumstances we learn of but what elevates it and made it truly compelling was the emotional component. Aird thoughtfully explores what it would feel like for Henrietta to suddenly find that everything she knew about herself and her family was wrong, generating enormous sympathy. The reader will want Henrietta to find answers to give her back that sense of identity that has been taken from her making that search for answers all the more engaging.
Getting to the solution provides a few twists and turns including an additional murder and there is a sense that the story builds towards its conclusion. The reveal of the murderer did not particularly surprise me as in this case the challenge lies more in observing the clues at all rather than their interpretation. Still, while I knew who did it I was much slower to figure out why or appreciate the full implications of what I had worked out.
Henrietta Who? is not an action-packed read though and, like its predecessor, the case unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace. That felt appropriate for this particular type of story and my interest in the case never faded. While it is part of a series, this can be read independently of the others and I preferred it slightly to the previous installment though not so much for me to suggest skipping that one.
So overall I enjoyed this second visit to Calleshire. I am glad that I finally remembered to return to this series and I hope to do so again soon.
The Verdict: An engaging and interesting case that hinges on a question of identity.
This counts towards the Vintage Scattegories challenge’s Wicked Women category as a Silver Age read.