Arrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peck (Lady Peck). First published by Faber & Faber in 1949, but set in 1920. With an excellent introduction by Martin Edwards, an expert on the Detection Club and a fine crime writer in his own right.
I’ve read a lot — a LOT — of old mysteries. Over the years, the cream of the Golden Age has floated to the top, and the higher-quality second-class novels occupy a large stratum immediately below that cream. If I haven’t already read or even heard of an old mystery, chances are there’s a reason for that, and it doesn’t usually bode well for the quality of the book.
The recent groundswell in Golden Age mysteries that goes hand in hand with the availability of e-books has certainly been unearthing all kinds of scarce volumes. Quite a few times recently I’ve done the electronic equivalent of tossing aside a creaky old volume that contained nothing new and had nothing to say … and with nothing that will interest you either. By and large, if I’ve never heard of it, these days it’s usually because it deserves to remain in obscurity. I read them, or at least the first half of them and then a quick skim of the last chapter, but I don’t bore you with them.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached the present volume, lured by the prospect of the usual excellent introductory material by Martin Edwards. I had never heard of Winifred Peck, I’d never heard of this volume, and I’ve been ploughing through a lot of old rubbish lately. My friends, I’m happy to say that this one is a winner.
WARNING: This essay concerns a work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this novel, although the solution to the crime and many other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What is this book about?
It’s December, 1920, and the Bishop of Evelake and his wife, the superb Mrs. Broome, are preparing to welcome a large house-party to the very large Bishop’s Palace. There is a coal shortage, and they can’t keep the bedrooms warm enough; there’s a servant shortage, and they’re forced to settle for the insufficient attentions of the egregious and recently-acquired butler Soames. (The elderly housekeeper Moira, who had diligently ruled the roost for 25 years, is installed in an upstairs bedroom, awaiting an urgently-required cancer operation.)
The most difficult part of the house-party, though, will be the guests. There’s a number of young men who are soon to be ordained as clerics; they will dine en famille, but take little part in the imminent goings-on. Chancellor Chailly and Canon Wye are both expected. Two young parsons should be no trouble; the Bishop’s secretary, Robert Borderer, known to all as Bobs, and an old friend of the family, Dick Marlin (whose wartime service suits him admirably to be an amateur detective). The Bishop’s younger daughter Sue should be as charming as ever.
There are two visitors who are guaranteed to cause trouble wherever they go. The Bishop’s older daughter Judith, a famous and high-living beauty, is in the throes of a divorce and thus has been … unhousable … at the highly moral Palace; however, she’s telegraphed to say she is in “terrible trouble” and thus Mrs. Broome insists that she be accommodated along with the rest of the party. The surprising guest is the repellent cleric Mr. Ulder, who is universally loathed and constantly makes trouble for his fellow clerics. He is a habitual drunkard who is as close as a clergyman gets to being a blackmailer, constantly looking for preferment or income by threatening to reveal the dirty little secrets of those around him. (As is usual in mysteries of this era, every potential suspect has a secret they’d like to keep.) When Ulder passes out from illness and drink upon arrival — after Judith has announced that Ulder is privy to a recent scandalous hotel stay with the man whom she intends to marry after her divorce — he is installed in an upstairs bedroom under the supervision of Dr. Lee.
The stage is set and, of course, there is a mysterious death that very night. The clerical establishment lets it be known that they would prefer everything under the rug and decide upon a verdict of accidental death. Unfortunately for all concerned, the local constabulary arrives in the person of Chief Constable Mack, whom the Bishop knows to be “a real enemy of the Church”; hushing things up discreetly will be impossible. Luckily Mack enlists the assistance of the Rev. Dick Marlin, ex-intelligence officer during WWI.
Mack pursues his inquiries in pretty much the wrong direction and the excellent Dick immediately spots the most promising line of inquiry. From the title, you may well guess that the Chief Constable is on the trail of a case against the Bishop, and this is definitely a possibility. Dick, however, has had his detective instincts aroused by an overheard name; he tracks various people’s family connections to their origins and solves the case, revealing a most unlikely criminal. In the best traditions of 1920, a number of sub-plots, romantic and otherwise, come to a happy fruition in the final chapter.
Why is this book worth your time?
As I noted above, I was dubious about this book before I picked it up. I found it so enjoyable from the first pages that I gulped it start to finish in a single sitting. I feel compelled to add that it is very likely that you will have a different reaction; this is one of those books about which it is rightly said, “They don’t write ’em like that any more.” Nor should they, frankly. This is very much a book about time and place and I suspect that no living writer will ever again have the knowledge necessary to bring this off in such a masterful way. Winifred Peck (later Lady Peck) was herself the daughter of a powerful Bishop, and insider information is rarely as well informed about subjects like the running of a Bishop’s Palace as we see here.
Remember that this book was published, and likely written, in 1949, but specifically locates itself in December, 1920, and doesn’t break that context. That’s important to know, because the entire action of the book, and certainly all its characters, are operating to a specialized point of view that might slide right by the modern reader. Simply put, the motives of everyone in the book are assumed, without ever saying so, to be pretty much above-board and for the betterment of humanity, etc. This is prima facie the case because they are members of the clergy and have taken Holy Orders, and the author of this book has ensured that every such clerical character can only act from the best of motives. Once you realize it, it’s like the experience of one of those quirky novels that doesn’t contain the letter “T”, or whatever. Everyone in this book of the higher social orders is GOOD, goodity goody good good, and pretty much the servants are the only characters who can possibly commit crimes. Clerics and their family members could not possibly commit a crime except perhaps by accident or misunderstanding; they might be guilty of cowardice, but never murder. This assumption is shared by everyone in the book, barring perhaps the heretical and anti-clerical Chief Constable, and that’s why this is the central idea of the book. If someone is capable of thinking that the Bishop is capable of murder; if they publish that idea in the newspapers or it becomes common chatter in the pub; then the Bishop will pretty much single-handedly have destroyed the Church 😉 So the title question is a very, very serious one to the Bishop for most of the book. If he gets arrested, he’ll have to resign the Bishopric. And that will affect all the other characters.
I don’t believe this “sinless clerics” point of view could have been maintained much beyond 1920; certainly not if the book had been set in 1949, well past the time when people were willing to believe without evidence that all clerics were completely incapable of murder. I suspect that no Golden Age author who didn’t have to face a clerical family over Christmas dinners would have been able to conceive of such a basis for a mystery, let alone carry it off. But Lady Peck manages it and does so with complete dedication. She believes all these characters are automatically innocent and thus we must as well. This is the sort of historical accuracy of viewpoint that I often look for and rarely see.
The characterization is not superb; there are a few characters who stand out as having some life to them but by and large these are stereotypes. In fact there is one character who serves almost no real function in the novel (the Bishop’s secretary) and this rather makes me think that this is a kind of roman a clef. The character of Mrs. Broome, the bishop’s wife, is really well done. I was irresistibly reminded of Agatha Christie’s Lady Angkatell in 1946’s The Hollow … and, no, I’m not suggesting Lady Peck owes Dame Agatha anything, they’re merely similar. If this is a roman a clef, then Mrs. Broome would be the author’s mother and Judith, the flibbertigibbet and very nearly immoral sister, would then be the author’s sister; I don’t know enough to tell one way or the other. If the characters are taken from her family, then she might owe an apology to her father. The Bishop is portrayed accurately, if unflatteringly, as a man with an inadequate personality who may have committed a sin if not a crime. Again, I was reminded of the fact that this book came out in 1949 but was set in 1920. If it had been published in 1920, there would have been a lot less characterization and a lot more plot, since that was the tenor of the times for mysteries. No character would have been characterized as subtly as the author presents the Bishop; it’s much more literate than mysteries were in the 1920s. There are all the trappings here of the 1920s mystery, including timetables and lists of suspects setting out their motives and opportunities, and no indication that the author had ever read a mystery published after 1930. It’s just that more attention has been paid to characterization.
The author’s family is worth a volume in itself (and there actually is one by her niece, found here). Briefly put, her maiden name was Knox. Her father was the Bishop of Manchester, one of her brothers was the editor of Punch, and another brother is well known to Golden Age mystery readers; Monseigneur Ronald Knox, who wrote six well-received mysteries and who was both a well-known Sherlockian and an early member of the Detection Club. In 1929, Ronald wrote the 10 Commandments of Detective Fiction, found here. It was delightful to me to learn about this author’s family, since there’s probably an entire essay available to write someday tracing the family’s mystery-writing similarities … what a pity that of her 26 books, Lady Peck only wrote two mysteries.
The language of this book is wonderfully erudite, even when considered with the higher educational standards of the Golden Age. It’s not often I have to stop to look up not one but two completely unfamiliar uses of language (collet monte and advowson, if you’re curious); the dialogue is not entirely believable but it has a great vivacity in its variety of expression. I have to say, there’s a consistent undertone in this book such that English people are automatically superior to the Irish; it’s subtle and nowhere really overt, but it is there and it’s a little unpleasant to contemplate. Yes, it was the attitude of the times, and we can find it easy enough to forgive, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t notice it and deprecate it. Everyone who commits a criminal act in this book is of Irish origin, and we can only wish the author had done better with that.
As usual, the introduction by Martin Edwards adds a great deal of value to the book; he goes into detail about things I’ve only touched on here, and surprised the hell out of me when he told me about the author’s family (it actually made me much, much more interested in what I was about to read). He suggests that this qualifies as a “Christmas mystery” — I can’t say there is much here about Christmas per se, but some of the action of the plot is occasioned by the presence of a heavy snowfall, so perhaps I’ll agree. I’m starting to feel that every book introduced by the erudite Mr. Edwards is automatically worth my time; so far, every one a winner.
To sum up — not a great mystery but a really interesting novel, filled with the accurate observations of someone who lived in a bygone and vanished milieu. This book is something a little different from the run of the mill mystery of its 1920s setting, and its evocation of 1920 in a Bishop’s Palace is delightful. I very much enjoyed this book, I intend to acquire the other of Lady Peck’s mysteries as soon as possible, and I hope you will find the same pleasure in this volume that I did.
My favourite edition
This book is so rare that I couldn’t even find an illustration of the first edition to show you; I’m unable to say whether the recent edition by Dean Street Press reproduces the jacket of the first edition, but I think it’s very likely, given the unusual typography. (Putting the title of a book in quotation marks on the cover was a bygone fashion that died out long, long ago.) You can find the recent Dean Street Press edition here, in a trade paper edition or Kindle. Since there isn’t a copy available of the first (and probably only) edition in hardcover for less than US$50 from ABEBooks, I recommend you get the modern one. As I’ve indicated above, the introduction by Martin Edwards makes it even more desirable.