Arrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck
One of my favourite publishers at the moment is Dean Street Press. It’s partly because they send me review copies of some brilliant books, but mainly it’s because they are reprinting some amazing 20th Century novels. The second list of the Furrowed Middlebrow books are becoming available about now, and there are some really tempting titles there, including some by women written during the Second World War. See http://furrowedmiddlebrow.blogspot.co.uk/ for all the details.
The book I am l am reviewing today is one of Dean Street Press’ Murder Mystery series. Arrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck.
As a great fan of Golden Age Mysteries, and a new follower of Winifred Peck, this book was a very attractive edition in Dean Street Press’ collection. I was not disappointed in any way. It combines a closed community murder mystery with some memorable characters, as well as some clever twists throughout.
The setting is a large, ruinous Bishop’s Palace. Despite the expenditure of some private money on furnishing and alteration, the building is still rambling and capable of holding many secrets. Many of the people staying in the house are clergy, or soon to be ordained. The Bishop’s family is also in residence; the elder daughter is a famous or infamous beauty, the younger a much more likable character. The Bishop’s wife is a busy lady, full of unease about her family and the household which includes a very ill old retainer. As Christmas approaches, the weather worsens and there is a most unwelcome arrival. The Reverend Ulder is not only a deeply unpleasant individual but has a record of near blackmail of various church officials. When he is taken ill he is grudgingly given a bed, but when he is discovered dead there must be great investigations of motives and the whereabouts of the many people who had a reason to hate him.
The festive season and the bad weather mean that the community becomes enclosed as much beloved by the Golden Age detection writers. Similarly, the police prove to be inept and the investigation has to be largely undertaken by Dick, an ordinand with some wartime experience of police work. Interviews and searches take place in a crumbling and neglected building, and many of the suspects seem to have good reasons to want Ulder dead. Some answers have to be sought further afield, but most of the novel takes place in an enclosed atmosphere which works very effectively. As a Bishop’s daughter herself, Peck gets all the ecclesiastical facts right, and makes several acute observations about the beliefs and struggles of older men who feel their lives’ work being questioned. That is not to say that this is a church based book of limited interest to most; it is a skilful detective tale of motive and method which twists and turns.
I enjoyed this book for its atmospheric writing, understanding of human nature and detailed handling of the subject. The murder victim is a generally hated character whose death is explicable, the romantic strands of the novel are happily resolved, and overall it is a great read for anyone who appreciates a good Golden Age Detection novel. Most of the characters are complex and believable, and the urge to confess to old bad deeds links many of them together. I found them memorable, and no one brushes the questions away as often happens in less well written books (or tv scripts!). There are some elements which are not as enjoyable, but it is a cleverly written novel of its time which is an interesting, challenging read, especially for Peck’s many fans. Thank you, Dean Street Press, for rediscovering this most enjoyable book.