Death in the Grand Manor by Anne Morice
Originally published in 1970
Tessa Crichton #1
Followed by Murder in Married Life
The narrator of this classic mystery is fashionable young actress, Tessa Crichton—obliged to turn private detective when murder strikes in the rural stronghold of Roakes Common. Leading hate-figures in the community are Mr. and Mrs. Cornford – the nouveaux riches of the local Manor House – suspected by some of malicious dog killing.
Tessa however has other things on her mind when she goes to stay with her cousin Toby and his wife Matilda. There’s her blossoming career, for one thing, not to mention coping with her eccentric cousins. Also the favourable impression made by a young man she meets under odd circumstances in the local pub. If it wasn’t for that dead body turning up in a ditch . . .
The murder mystery will lead Tessa to perilous danger, but she solves it herself, witty, blithe and soignée to the last. The story is distinguished by memorable characterisation and a sharp ear for dialogue, adding to the satisfaction of a traditional cunningly-clued detective story.
Death in the Grand Manor introduces readers to the character of Tessa Crichton, an actress though not a hugely successful one. At the start of the novel Tessa has just finished a job and has no other on the horizon though her agent assures her that her prospects are excellent. When her cousin Toby, a playwright, gets in touch to ask if she can stay with him to look after his daughter for a while as his wife Matilda, also an actress, is away on tour, Tessa agrees.
When she arrives in Roakes Common she soon discovers that resentment has built within the community toward the Cornfords, a nouveau riche family who have big plans to redevelop the area if they can persuade their neighbors to sell up. Some resent the pair’s attitude toward the other villagers while others fear that they plan to force them out by destroying the aspects of life in the village that they love. As for young Ellen, Toby’s daughter – she holds them responsible for the death of her dog.
It will come as little surprise to the reader that one of this pair, either Mr. or Mrs Cornford, will be the victim in this story but as that does not happen until over halfway into the novel I will not share any specific details concerning the murder. Instead I will try to keep my comments as general as possible.
What I am happy to say is that Tessa is not directly involved in the murder, nor is she ever suspected of commiting it, but has good reasons to want to see the investigation quickly and successfully concluded. This case will touch quite close to home for her with both Toby and Matilda coming under suspicion, giving her additional reasons to get involved.
Not that Tessa’s investigative style is particularly active. Tessa is neither snoopy nor meddlesome. She does not possess any unusual levels of deductive reasoning or intuition. One striking feature of Morice’s novel is that because the murder itself occurs so late, much of the evidence that Tessa accumulates happens before the crime itself. This is often a strong technique as it gives the reader possible answers before knowing what the question will be, helping to obscure or downplay important information while still fairly presenting it to the reader. Instead of searching for clues then, Tessa’s main activities are to talk out the case with another character and to try and think through the cast of characters to find motives, opportunities and psychological factors supporting the idea that they may be the murderer.
While Tessa may not be as brilliant as some other sleuths in terms of pure deduction (at least on the basis of this first outing), I found her to be a thoroughly likeable character and enjoyed her often wry style of narration which is peppered with observations and witty asides. She reminded me a little of Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey in her habit of being quite flippant and also in a pretty charming romance she finds herself involved in.
That romance is worth highlighting as it is one of the book’s strongest subplots. This begins a short while before the murder and runs throughout the whole novel, developing alongside the mystery itself. Morice writes these scenes with a great deal of charm and the same lightly comical touch found elsewhere in the novel. While it’s not deep, the quick and easy attraction reminded me of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane and others may well find themselves with similarly feelings.
Morice is also quite successful in her depictions of the lives and personalities of the other villagers who make up quite a colorful assortment of characters. While we do not spend a huge amount of time in most of their lives, I was impressed by the hooks she created for each character that helped me get a reasonably strong handle on each of them from early on in the novel. Of course I liked Ellen, who from time-to-time behaves in quite a precocious way, but I also felt that Matilda and Toby made particularly strong impressions.
Which brings me, I suppose, back to the solution to the mystery. I have somewhat mixed feelings about it, much of which reflects that the murder is introduced quite late in the novel. As entertaining and enjoyable as this mystery was, the case is not particularly complex. There are not many twists or big revelations, rather we just watch the situation play out. Thankfully even if the case is not particularly mystifying, these moments are handled pretty well and I remained engaged until the end.
Add in the striking photographic cover with its seventies fashion (I am a fan though they seem pretty divisive based on Twitter responses), some 70s dinner party glamor and a solid enough murder scheme and you have an entertaining and engaging read. I certainly intend to keep going with the series and will look forward to seeing where her adventures take her next.
The Verdict: An entertaining story with lively characters and a memorable sleuth. I look forward to reading others in this series.
A digital copy of the book was provided by the publisher for early review.