Henrietta Who? by Catherine Aird

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.

The Religious Body by Catherine Aird

Originally Published 1966
The Calleshire Chronicles #1
Followed by Henrietta Who?

The day begins like any other for Sister Mary St. Gertrude. When her alarm sounds at 5 a.m., Sister Mary begins rousting her convent sisters from their beds, starting with the Reverend Mother. Down the Order she goes with a knock and a warm blessing. But when the young nun reaches Sister Anne’s door, there is no answer. She assumes that Sister Anne got up early, and continues on her way.

But later, when a fellow nun leaves a bloody thumbprint on the sheet music for a hymn, and Sister Anne is nowhere to be found, it becomes apparent that something is very wrong. Then Sister Anne’s body is found at the bottom of a steep set of stairs, her veil askew and her head crushed.

The Religious Body is the first in Catherine Aird’s Calleshire Chronicles series set in a fictional English county. I must confess that when I picked up this book I had never heard of this series but clearly it has its fans as over fifty years after this was published Aird continues to write Inspector Sloan stories.

The story concerns the disappearance of Sister Anne, a nun within the Convent of St. Anselm. She appears to have vanished suddenly from the building but without any clear cause and there is some confusion as to when she was last seen. Concerned, the nuns organize a search of the building and she is discovered dead at the foot of a set of stairs.

Though it is presumed that she just slipped and tumbled to her death the crime scene presents some problems. For one thing, the door to those stairs was supposed to be locked and access to the keys was limited. For another, there are signs on the skull that are consistent with being hit with a heavy spherical object. And then there is the problem that there are no signs of either a weapon or physical evidence suggesting violence at the scene of death, suggesting Sister Anne was killed elsewhere and her body moved some time later.

The Religious Body seems to often get labeled as a procedural novel yet the setup is pure puzzle mystery. While this is close to being a closed circle mystery, Aird does not present us with a clearly defined list of suspects to pick from but instead she challenges the reader to understand why Sister Anne might have been targeted in the first place.

One of the reasons for this approach is that the victim seems an unlikely target. Sister Anne has no known enemies and as a longstanding member of the convent it is hard to understand why she would suddenly be targeted. Also the sequence of events on the night in question seems confusing while the appearance of the dead woman’s glasses on a guy effigy at a local school’s Bonfire Night festivities shortly after the murder to make little sense. On the face of things there is little outlandish in this case and yet when examined more closely nothing seems to make sense.

Investigating the case are Inspector Sloan and his assistant, Detective Constable Crosby. They make for a pretty pleasing, if not particularly colorful pair of lead characters. We largely interact with them professionally in this novel, getting only short glimpses of their private lives but both are shown to be smart and observant.

The aspects of the book that really resonated with me were those detailing convent lives. For instance, in the opening chapters of the book we read about the monotony of a nun’s responsibility to wake up all of the others each morning and later about the restrictions concerning the visitors they may receive or the way they can spend their time without specific work assignments. The details feel well-researched and authentic, helping to bring this setting and the characters to life.

I think Aird handles these aspects of her setting quite skillfully, at times presenting strong opinions on the part of her characters while ultimately remaining respectful of the women’s right to choose that life and make that commitment. Most of these characters and their conflicts feel convincing and I was interested to learn more about their lives.

As much as I appreciated following the investigation and learning about the suspects and incidental characters, I did feel a little disappointed with an aspect of the solution to the case. While I thought the murder was interesting mechanically and I understood the killer’s motive in committing it, I couldn’t quite get to grips with their motivations for some of the events in their life that precede it.

In spite of my issue with this aspect of the book, I still found it to be interesting and entertaining. Aird clearly had researched her setting well and I had little difficulty believing that these characters could exist. Though the case is quite low-key and lacks any shocking or unexpected moments, I think it is quietly effective and I appreciated the convincing and detailed setting.

It adds up for a solid read, particularly if you are someone who enjoys mysteries set within religious communities, and while I don’t feel any great sense of urgency I fully expect to read others within this series in the future.