Death of an Old Girl is the first of a series of mysteries featuring CDI Tom Pollard of Scotland Yard and his assistant Sergeant Toye. The series ran for 17 volumes between 1967 and 1988 and exhibited many characteristics of Golden Age detective fiction; there’s a certain gentility and good nature that shines through these novels but not at the expense of interesting plots.
This volume came to me unexpectedly as I scoured a used bookstore; I haven’t seen any Lemarchand at my usual haunts for quite some time; although I recall the volumes that were in paperback as having been much more prevalent 20 years ago, they don’t show up often these days. About half her books were never published in paperback and will give you more trouble to find; this one is more common.
Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of crime fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others; I discuss elements of plot and construction although I don’t lay out the answers in so many words. If you haven’t already read this novel, reading this essay means it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What’s this book about?
The scene is Meldon School for Girls, a venerable institution for teenage girls that has recently undergone some updating. A new headmistress with more modern ideas is making changes, much to the displeasure of a coterie of Meldonian Old Girls. The ranks of the old guard are led by a wealthy spinster, Beatrice Baynes, who has an outsized bee in her bonnet about change in general and in particular the sudden modernization of the Art Department by young Miss Cartmell, its new instructor.
In the course of Old Girls Reunion weekend, passions come to a head. After some tempestuous interactions with staff and relatives, Miss Baynes’s murdered body is found stuffed into a puppet theatre off to one side of the Art Room at Meldon. Pollard and Toye are brought in to make sense of the many motivations for this crime and bring it home to what might be a surprising perpetrator.
Why is this book worth my time?
Generally when I try to bring a book to your attention, it’s because it has some feature that is worth your time. Sometimes I’ve tried in the past to convince you that a less-than-stellar book deserves your time because of its historical significance, or prefiguring of another, better novel; many reasons other than mere quality. With this volume, I’d merely like to suggest that you will enjoy it — reason enough, I trust.
This book is a debut effort by a novelist who has absorbed the general airs and graces of the Golden Age of Detection of the 1920s and 1930s, taken them to heart, but updated them to the period of the 1960s. What made me think so is that, like the 1920s and 1930s, this book contains no graphic violence, no objectionable language, and very little that would offend anyone. The murder takes place offstage (except that the corpse is found hidden behind a little stage, ha ha) and all other crimes are non-violent and moderately forgivable. Perhaps we could call this the ancestor of the modern cozy, although expressed to the Scotland Yard detective format of a previous age.
Death of an Old Girl was published at a time when almost no one was writing — or really reading — this kind of book as popular fiction. I think it’s interesting that it had sufficient in the way of readability and sheer pleasure to get published at a time when this sort of nostalgic exercise was not popular.
There is not much here to trouble the attentive reader who wishes to solve a murder. Pollard and Toye are rather bland and Inspector-French-like nonentities with sketched-in family and personal lives. When they arrive, they reconnoiter, investigate obvious suspect #1, move to #2, on to #3 and in that context reveal some underlying realities behind the murder and unmask a slightly surprising murderer. (I think all my readers will find their way to suspecting #3 but some will not make the leap to the identity of the murderer, #4.)
The people whom I can really see enjoying this are readers who hanker for that nostalgic exercise, a kind of applied blandness that has its adherents among people who want to read unchallenging fiction. All the people here are “nice” except for the few who are “not nice”, and those few are pretty much caricatures. The only not nice person is the murderer, who manages to conceal his/her not-niceness under a bland facade.
I thought it was interesting to look at this book as an exercise in construction, because that’s so clearly what it was for this neophyte author. Only four main subjects, considered seriatim, and nothing happens to interrupt this vision. I couldn’t help but think along the way that Lemarchand had deliberately restricted the field by not offering us even the dismissal of further possibilities. A bunch of women are mentioned early on as being supporters of the late Miss Baynes and her dislike of modern art (aka nude sculpture and drawing LOL). But these women never show up and don’t provide interviews or names, so it’s clear they’re not involved. Similarly the upper registers of the Meldonian hierarchy are pretty much sacrosanct; it’s clear that the new Headmistress is unimpeachably virtuous.
There was some interest I found in the character of Miss Baynes, who reminded me of the crazed anti-sex spinster in Ngaio Marsh’s Overture to Death, but she’s killed far too early to give more than a hint of her presence. In a way, Lemarchand has made an error that I have seen writing textbooks teach is a bad idea; she seems reluctant to have her characters experience any conflict (so everyone has to be pretty much pleasant to deal with). If Baynes’s rages against modernity had been more on-stage than off-, or if she had had a lieutenant prepared to take up the cudgels against vulgarity and young girls seeing the naughty bits in art, this might have been a more exciting book with a few more false trails and interesting characters.
But we can only review the book we actually read. And so I’ll say that I suspect my readers who are fans of Freeman Wills Crofts will enjoy this book; aficionados of the gentle Silver Age mystery that hearkens back to the classics, for instance. Fans of Dorothy Simpson, later Patricia Wentworth, and early P.D. James will like this; fans of Mickey Spillane and male private eye novels will likely not. It’s a gentle murder mystery that will be fairly easy to solve. The difference between this and the kind of cosy mystery that sets my teeth on edge is that, while the author doesn’t focus strenuously on the pool of blood or the battered corpse, neither does she spray everything with potpourri in an attempt to disguise the blood. She’s merely writing about nice people for nice people, that’s all.
This is a charming little book and you’ll come up for air after a few hours thinking, “Wow, for an unassuming mystery that sure had a lot to offer.” I hope you can find a copy cheaply, you’ll enjoy it.