Arrest the Bishop? – Winifred Peck
Should you ever have a direct interrogatory statement as the title of your novel? Anthony Trollope occasionally did and was roundly criticised for it, but such considerations do not seem to have worried Winifred Peck in this, her second of two, detective stories, first published in 1949 and now reissued by the wonderful Dean Street Press. The action is set in 1920 and in a bishop’s palace, a setting Peck would know well as she was a daughter of a bishop. Although the action occurs around Christmas, it is not remotely a Christmas tale, but the inevitable and obligatory heavy snowfall ensures that the speed with which investigations can proceed is severely hampered and that the culprit has little opportunity to effect their escape.
The victim is a nasty piece of work, the Reverend Ulder, who was involved in some scandal five years ago which the church hierarchy, as is their wont, hushed up, but he is now on his uppers and has the dirt on the Bishop, Dr Broome, his Chancellor, Chailly, the Canon, Wye, the bishop’s eldest daughter, Judith, and a young Irish priest about to be ordained. The Broomes are holding a weekend party to take in the ordination and the anticipated arrival of Ulder sets everybody’s nerves on edge.
Like Marley’s ghost, Ulder turns up the worse for drink and immediately collapses. The doctor who attends prescribes six morphia tablets with strict instructions as to their application and orders no strong drink. During the evening Ulder is visited by each of the main characters and the following morning is found dead – from morphia poisoning.
Helpfully, Ulder had a piece of paper close by him, naming each of his blackmail victims and how much he was trying to extort out of each to fund his emigration to a new life in America. Was one of these the murderer? His second piece of luggage has mysteriously disappeared. What did it contain and who stole it? Had it anything to do with the murder?
In charge of the investigations for the police is Chief Constable Mack who has it in for the bishopric for its cover up over past misdemeanours and he is convinced from the evidence before him that the Bishop is the murderer, a conclusion that leads him to the statement “I must arrest the Bishop”. It would cause quite a stir to arrest the bishop and he needs to pluck up courage and seek higher (mortal) authority before he can make his step.
Also involved in the investigations, sometimes in tandem with Mack and sometimes independently, is one of the priests to be ordained, Dick Marling, formerly a member of Military Intelligence. Because of his position in the church he is trusted and is able to find out more than the antagonistic Mack.
There are suspects galore, red herrings, close shaves with death. an invalid servant, a shifty butler with previous, a ditsy motor mouth of a fast-living girl in the form of Judith Broome, the Bishop’s wayward eldest daughter, and the obligatory love interest provided by Marlin’s inamorata, Sue Broome. Even Irish terrorism rears its ugly head. There are twists and turns galore in this fast-moving and compelling story and, rather like a game Cluedo, the careful investigation and elimination of the key suspects leads to a surprising and inevitable conclusion. Things are not always what they seem and even the most unlikely and seemingly innocent character can be the guilty party.
I enjoyed this book. It is a shame that Peck did not continue with her detective writing. It is our loss.