The Hymn Tune Mystery by George A. Birmingham – a mystery from 1930 set in a Cathedral, now republished by Oreon Press

The Hymn Tune Mystery by George A. Birmingham

In this spirited interwar mystery originally published in 1930, ecclesiastical characters and dubious types fill the streets of the small town of Carminster as a mystery develops around the Cathedral. An organist is known for his erratic behaviour, a Dean with more than a passing interest in exciting Latin lyrics, a dynamic daughter and many more make up a charming story of a missing tune which I found really engaging. A novel of its time, there is gentle humour as people begin to realise that there may be more going on than they first expect, and they are always aware of their place in the hierarchy of the town. The characters are consistent and well imagined, ranging from the uncertain and anxious Dean, through the clever and funny Precentor, to a cautious and long suffering police Inspector. For anyone who knows something of church politics, including Anthony Trollope fans, there will be a fascinating element of the clerical characters to enjoy, but everyone will enjoy the mystery and the atmosphere. George Birmingham has a sophisticated touch with the clues and leads, and the setting of the small town where everyone knows what is going on is well handled throughout. This is a very engaging and entertaining book which that I really enjoyed, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read and review it.

The book begins with a description of the beauties of Carminster, an idyllic town dominated by its Cathedral which in turn has been the beneficiary of gifts from the newly created Lord Carminster. At his behest tombs have been moved, scholarships created and heavyweight church furnishings provided, even if there were those who had reservations about these changes to the age old way of life. One of these is the Dean, whose secret enthusiasm for translating dubious Latin drinking verses is concealed from his dominant daughter Sybil, who has chosen running the Dean’s house and indeed the Cathedral over a life in academia. In this she conspires with the Archdeacon, a man of firm and structured beliefs, behaviour and expectations in every aspect of life. They both despair of Cresswood, a good organist whose attraction to the bottle is well known to everyone, but whose playing is undoubtedly inspiring. A late night visit to the Cathedral by the Dean and as it proves, Cresswood, means that the following day, when music is expected in a full choral service, silence ensues. A verdict both unofficial and official is quickly reached, and the matter seems at an end, but maybe there is something more to discover.

This is a story that seems to involve in a very natural way, with real personalities realising their limitations. I particularly enjoyed the character of the Reverend John Dennis, minor canon and Precentor, notionally in charge of the music of the Cathedral. He is an outsider and takes a very different line from the powers that be, which is significant when certain things seem to happen. The humour is gentle yet effective, the setting fascinating, and the plot is clever. I recommend this novel for so many reasons, and I am so pleased that it has been republished by Oreon Press and made available once more.