The Warrielaw Jewel by Winifred Peck

After various visits to exciting bookshops, including one on a hill in Buxton (Scriveners Books, friendly staff and you can watch hand bookbinding), I thought I would look at a book I actually got through the post from the ever lovely Dean St Press.

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Winifred Peck wrote two mystery novels, and they have turned out very differently. To say that The Warrielaw Jewel is more domestic sounds like a criticism, but in this case it is a compliment. It deals with Edinburgh life before the First World War, written from the perspective of a woman newly married into the society of ancient families, strange obsessions, and beliefs about inheritance that defy logic. Betty’s husband is a lawyer, well versed in the history of families who live to strict rules of their own devising, but who are keen to drag in the law prove a point. This makes it sound dry, but it certainly is not, as early cars screech around, gentlemen detectives detect, and the plot becomes increasingly convoluted.


Betty is introduced to two of the Warrielaw family when they call to see her, on the surface as a bride, but really hoping to talk to her husband John about the legal knots that the family has tied itself into over inherited property. Apart from a large house and garden, the burden of the squabble seems to be a jewel, not of fabulous value for its stones, but for the workmanship which is so exquisite that it seems not of human origin. Within days the jewel is stolen, petty jealousies rise and a murder has been committed. The sound of cars rushing around, mammoth walks and the narrator falling asleep at unlikely times add up to an engaging mystery, which cannot and will not be easily solved until the last gasp of available time.


The plot rapidly becomes complicated and motives assumed and discarded in the face of a mystery played out across the city. As with Peck’s other novels, it is a mixture of the dialogue and the characters that really engage the reader. Little clues of speech reveal much, as a chief suspect learns of his peril and replies with “In the midst of death we are at breakfast time. Let us send out for some sausages.” His clothes, noticeable in a crowd, contrast with those worn by his aunts, being carefully described in their colour and style to reflect the personalities of the wearer also assume some significance in other ways. Peck notices and describes (in her fictional creations) the telling gesture, the glimpse through a window which reveals so much. The style of writing is so elegant, so assured, that the reader is completely engaged, not only to solve the mystery, but to revel in exactly how it was done.


I really enjoyed this novel, partly as a murder mystery published in the Golden Age even if set before the interwar years, and partly because it is a tale of a society complicated by tradition, some wealth and some pithy observations about families and women within and without them. As in Peck’s other reprinted book, Housebound (Persephone no.72), the houses and streets, gardens and even vehicles assume importance as Peck obviously enjoys visualising the settings in which she has set her fully realised characters. Romance, risk and a satisfying pace make this another excellent read from Dean Street Press, and I am very grateful that they supplied me with actual copy of this memorable book.

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  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.

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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.


House – Bound by Winifred Peck. A Persephone Classic

After reading the wonderful Bewildering Cares and Arrest the Bishop I was hoping for great things from Persephone’s reprint of House – Bound. I was not disappointed on my re read of this 1940s book. It is a book of the wartime home front in Edinburgh, where one of the main concerns is an actual house, stubbornly of another age; object of very mixed feelings for Rose Fairlaw.

The novel opens in an agency for finding domestic servants, which as a result of munition factory openings and a whole attitude change by young women formerly happy to work in genteel houses, cannot find and offer any staff. Rose meets up with her friend Linda, and discusses her intention to make her war work looking after the family house and cooking for her husband herself. This is a significant decision for a woman who has no clue about cooking, cleaning or any form of domestic work beyond the ordering of goods and services. Answering the door, the telephone and coping with dust will prove to be a full time occupation in a house built for a full set of servants, even though she is helped by a passing, organising stranger. Providing food for herself and her singularly unhelpful husband, especially in the face of rationing and shortages, brings her to her knees.

Another challenge is her grown up children. Rose’s family is what we would now call blended as she has a daughter, Flora, from her first husband killed in the First World War. Mickie is a much loved son from her husband’s, Stuart’s, first marriage to Rose’s friend who died tragically young. Tom is the son of this second marriage, and happily robust, down to earth and pacifies people with humour and understanding. Flora is very difficult, unhappy for so many reasons, a young woman with grudges against everyone, particularly her mother.

This could have been a family saga of gloom and doom, or a sad account of domestic woe. In Peck’s hands, however, it is an enjoyable account of what feels like real life. There are tragedies and challenges; after all this book was published in 1942 when the war was uncertain, dangerous and undecided. I felt for Rose in her domestic discoveries as she debates if vegetables need to be washed with soap and if dusting and polishing is essential when the room is unused. Her husband is icily isolated, feeling some sympathy for her exhaustion but unheeding that his routine causes so much work. There are some funny and appalling characters such as Grannie Carr Berwick, with her firm views and catch phrases.

This is a relatively short book but it packs a lot in, especially about the family dynamics which ring so true, especially in the tense setting of war.  I enjoyed it more on a re read, seeing far more humour and empathy in the writing. It is a very good read, and a worthy reprint from Persephone.



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The book with it’s endpaper; as usual a brilliant package from Persephone. I’m really looking forward to reading the latest acquisition, Long Live Great Bardfield,  no.119 which Northernvicar bought from the Persephone bookshop itself.  Another book written in 1942 apparently.


A new arrival at the Vicarage, Books of the Year and a mini reading Challenge

Happy New Year! I hope that everyone had a good Christmas and New Year celebrations.

In a working vicarage, there were services to do, a massive garden to start taming and lots of lovely family and friends. We also greeted a new Vicarage cat, Selwyn.

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He came from a local Animal rescue centre, is two years old and loves (at the moment) meeting new people. As you can see, he also tries to help Northernvicar with vital admin…. (Sorry for the uncropped nature of this picture… I’m not brilliant with my phone camera). The name is from the college where Northernvicar and I met, and it was his choice.

Anyway, as to books of the year. The book I enjoyed most, that I did not want to finish, was definitely Bewildering Cares  by Winifred Peck . From the lovely publishers Dean Street Press who are reprinting some great Golden Age mysteries as well as the Furrowed Middlebrow list, this is a great novel for anyone who enjoyed Diary of a Provincial Lady and many of the Persephone titles.

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I have reviewed it on this blog (though I can’t find the link at the moment, sorry) and I would urge you to track down a copy or a kindle version. For those who are interested, it is written from the point of view of a vicar’s wife in 1940, as she struggles to cope with the normal struggles of life with the added challenges of war. It is very funny, a fascinating view of faith, and realism. For those who prefer a more “non fiction” account of wartime survival, you could also try A Chelsea Concerto  by Frances Faviell


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(Also reviewed on this blog…somewhere)

Other books which stick in the memory are Sweet Caress   by William Boyd

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The story of a woman who lives her life through the challenges of war and so called peace. This is a fascinating book, and such is the reality it constructs that it seems to become a genuine autobiography.

Greengates  by RC Sheriff is a lovely book about the challenges and concerns of a retired couple who seek a new life in the early 20th century rebuilding programmes, and is a great Persephone edition.

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Finally for this brief roundup, another novel of a woman’s life which spans much of the 20th century, Freya  by Anthony Quinn.

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This is a sequel in some respects to Quinn’s earlier A Curtain Call,   but is a far bigger novel with a bigger story of life and love.

Those were some of my highlights this year, in no particular order. I have not posted about them all as moving to a new Vicarage has taken up a little time this last year, which has also affected my reading tally of only 123 books in 2016.

Anyway, in the next few months, well by the end of June anyway, I want to have read (reread mostly) my Christmas present of the folio edition of Dorothy L. Sayers Peter Wimsey books

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I have made a good start by already finishing Strong Poison. Five books in six months? It should be straightforward… I aim to write about each as I finish them so watch this space!



Bewildering Cares – Winifred Peck – A Furrowed Middlebrow edition

This is an actual book! Thank you to the nice people at Furrowed Middlebrow/ Dean Street Press who listened to my plea that as a 21st century Vicar’s wife that I would really enjoy this book about a Vicar’s wife in 1940, I now have a a new favourite book!

If you have ever found a book that you wanted to last longer, and that you really didn’t want to read too fast, this is it for me. I appreciate that it may not be to everyone’s taste, but anyone who has enjoyed The Diary of a Provincial Lady  will recognise and enjoy this style of writing.

Camilla Lacely is married to Arthur, Vicar and Philosopher, as the Second World War is beginning. Their only son, Dick, is in the Army already, but so far safe. They live in a fairly grim parish just outside Manchester, and the book is an account by Camilla of a week in the life, in which she copes with a campaign against a curate’s sermon (which she has slept through), romance, an Archdeacon, a Clergy Wives Quiet Day, innumerable committee meetings, and a charity Bazaar.  There are the phone calls that she deals with (always at the wrong moment…how do they know?), the appeals for help from the strangest of sources, the pile of Stuff that appears at every sale, the complaints that no one can sort out, those people who need careful handling….

Also there are the people who want little, but who are a delight to meet, like the older lady who slips towards her end dreaming of her youth in the countryside, the clergy wife who drops cakes in the road which need retrieving or hiding in the pouring rain, the family crisis solved against the odds. The style is discursive, and the story diverts into Camilla’s thoughts as she tries to cope with being late, being insufficiently holy, a cook/maid who has an individual approach to work, and a fire that will not light. She fights the battle of a husband who does not stop to eat, a small income on which to run a large house, as well as maintaining a calm unruffled face in all circumstances. Of course, there is the looming threat of war, as she fears for her son, and indeed the country in the face of possible invasion. Sickness in a family is a a financial worry  for everyone, as well as pre-penicillin dangers.There is hope, and even love, as some couples eventually plan to marry, and as much as possible there is a happy ending. I was also really interested in the references to other books that she is reading, notably Demon in the House   and Wild Strawberries,  both by my favourite author Angela Thirkell.  It is fascinating (for me at least) to think of these books actually being important in their own time, which I enjoy today. Indeed, she claims that she has read the latter thirty times, and will probably read it thirty times more, as a reliably happy book.

This book is a long way from A Chelsea Concerto  and does not cover the bombing, the problems of refugees, and in some senses the harsh reality of war. I can say that I recognised some of the pressures, some of the constraints, that can affect  clergy families today.  I realise that it is a privilege in some ways, but hard work in others! This is a good book of its type, and I certainly plan to read it again, though not perhaps thirty times…

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