The Warrielaw Jewel – Winifred Peck
Winnifred Peck only wrote two murder mystery novels and The Warrielaw Jewel was the earlier of the two, originally published in 1933 and now reissued for a modern readership to discover by the indefatigable Dean Street Press. I must confess I found this one a bit hard going to get into, perhaps because there were too many Warrielaws to get my head round and partly because of a faint irritation with Peck’s choice of narrator.
The story is set in Edinburgh in 1909 and seen through the eyes of Betty Morrison, the newly married bride of John Morrison, a solicitor who represents the Warrielaws. The Warrielaws are a family at war with resentments that have seethed and festered for generations. They are mad, if you were being charitable you might say highly eccentric, famed for their piercing gold-green eyes and have a valuable jewel in their possession. Their petty feuds centre around who is going to inherit what and what is going to happen to jewel.
There enough Warrielaws to go around, a couple of elderly sisters, Jessica and Mary, the loose-living, artistic Neil, the force of nature that is Rhoda, Cora and to provide the obligatory love interest, the beautiful Alison. The book’s action is kickstarted by the death of one of the sisters, leaving Betty as the holder of some information which may unlock the mystery, and the disappearance of the jewel. The burden of much of the investigation falls upon a private investigator, Bob Stuart, drafted I at the insistence of John Morrison and Betty’s brother, Dennis, who inevitably falls for the charms of Alison.
I suppose my irritation with Peck’s choice of narrator centres around the fact that Betty is for much of the time peripheral to the action and so the investigation and the plot is moved on either by debriefings by the principal characters or Betty witnessing an incident first-hand. She is also reluctant to spill the beans, prolonging the unfolding of the mystery for longer than would otherwise have been the case.
The book is well-written and is stock full of characters who, once I had worked out their relationship to each other and their role in the saga, the main characters were well drawn. Less care and attention was taken in breathing some life into the minor characters, particularly those from the lower orders. The pace of the book does not stall, but I found it slightly undercooked, missing a certain spark or an element of humour that other writers of the period were able to inject into their mysteries. Even the major set-pieces seemed to lack a certain something. I was left with the impression that it could have been better.
I think the sense that Peck viewed this as more of a puzzle than a fully developed novel was heightened by a device about four chapters from the end. The reader is presented with a large “Stop” sign and advised that all the clues necessary to solve the mystery have been revealed and the reader was invited to try their luck at solving the mystery. Whether you take up the challenge or not it leaves a certain sense of anti-climax as you realise that there is not going to be a big reveal at the end. I’m not sure this device worked.
For the modern reader there are some fascinating insights into life and attitudes of the time, not least Betty’s pride at having a car and the fact that prisoners on remand were not allowed to smoke. It is worth a read but there are better Golden Age Detective novels from the period.