My good friend and fellow blogger Darlene made a visit to the UK from Canada last week, and it was lovely to have the chance to catch up with her in London. We had dinner in a restaurant on Charing Cross Road, which obviously meant that it would be silly for us not to pop into the second hand bookshops that were literally right next door. I fully intended on not buying anything, because I will be moving shortly, and goodness knows I have enough books to shift already, but it is a truth universally acknowledged that I can never resist a Green Penguin paperback, especially one with a ridiculous title, and so for a few pennies, Gladys Mitchell’s The Mystery of a Butcher’s Shop found its way into my bag. As luck would have it, I had neglected to bring a book with me to read on the train (because I am still wading my way through Wolf Hall and it is too heavy to lug around) and so I started reading on my way home. I was instantly charmed by the period detail such as the terrible slang ‘it’s a bally nuisance, old boy’, the kleptomaniac vicar, the formidable matriarch fallen on hard times and the rather Madame Arcati-esque eccentric local crime solver, Mrs Bradley, and, though the plot was clearly going to be ridiculous, involving more unlikely coincidences than you could shake a stick at, I knew I was going to enjoy every minute. There really is nothing like a bit of harmless vintage crime fiction when you fancy an undemanding read.
In the absurdly named village of Wandles Parva, nestled in the rolling countryside of deepest Devonshire, Rupert Sethleigh, the village squire, mysteriously disappears. Staying with him is his shifty young cousin, Jim Redsey, who insists that Rupert has gone to America, but no one believes this for a second, especially not Mrs Bryce Harringay, Rupert and James’ overbearing aunt, who is also staying at the manor with her son Aubrey. When a headless dismembered body is found hanging in the local butcher’s shop window a couple of days later, the assumption has to be made that the body belongs to Rupert, but with a wide cast of characters with plenty of reasons to kill Rupert hanging around, finding a solution to his murder won’t be easy. Especially when a skull is found and then mysteriously disappears, young detectives Aubrey and the vicar’s pretty daughter Felicity turn detective and find all sorts of odd shenanigans going on in the woods, and Rupert Sethleigh’s lawyer reveals that he was just about to cut Jim Redsey out of his will. In between all of this sleuthing, there is plenty of opportunity to enjoy the odd tennis party and charming seaside excursion, transporting the reader wonderfully to a world with a gentler pace of life, where no one seems to actually have a job and the summer goes on forever. Just what you need when you’re drowning in exam marking!
I love the fact that these Green Penguins are so of their time, and provide a fascinating insight into the life of the leisured classes of their period. None of the ones I’ve read have been set anywhere other than leafy middle class enclaves, where everyone has a flower-filled drawing room with french windows opening onto the lawn, a library and a tennis court, and social life revolves around the vicarage, the tennis club and evening cocktail parties. Perky maids are the vessels of a mine of useful information, the vicar’s daughter is always lithe, beautiful and unappreciated, and everyone over a certain age is either eccentric or odious. In any other type of novel, these stereotypes would be unforgivable, but somehow, in crime fiction, they work. This is humanity drawn with broad brush strokes; the characters are recognisable and amusing but lack the individuality and complexity expected of a more literary novel, meaning that they become less realistic and so emotionally engaging. This allows for the necessary degree of detachment in the reader that is required when reading crime fiction; you can’t allow yourself to like people who might end up being murderers, after all! If you gave me one of the modern crime writers to read, I wouldn’t like it; I find them all very dark and depressing, because it’s too close to the often sad reality of the world we live in and therefore not escapist at all. However, give me a gentle caper around a village peopled with vicars and eccentric old ladies who are trying to find the murderer of a wicked cad who deserved everything he got, and I’d be delighted. If you ever find a Green Penguin, snap it up. And you might also want to check out the British Library collection of vintage crime novels that are being republished with lovely covers; they’re a bit hit and miss in my experience, but always entertaining nonetheless.