Shadows Before

A review of Shadows Before by Dorothy Bowers

This is the second of Dorothy Bowers’ Inspector Pardoe mystery murders, originally published in 1939 and now reissued by Moonstone Press. I found it less accessible than her debut novel, Postscript to Poison, and it has quite a complicated plot. Structurally, it was reminiscent of a Christopher Bush novel with the reader fed a series of seemingly unrelated sequences – it opens with a series of letters and then a second section in which we follow Aurelia Brett as she is interviewed and offered the role of companion to Catherine Weir – which only make sense and complete the picture as the book reaches its denouement.

And what a finale it is. Through all the highways and byways of the plot Bowers manages to turn the story on its head and come up with a solution many of her readers would not have seen coming. It rescues what otherwise would have been a rather pedestrian novel.

It is another tale of poisoning, Catherine Weir the initial victim. She is suffering from what would nowadays be diagnosed as dementia, needs supervision and is taken to rambling around the countryside collecting plants which she makes into a herbal tea concoction. One night someone slips some arsenic into it and its goodnight, Catherine. Who the culprit was is the task of Inspector Pardoe, Bower’s worthy police detective to discover, and he soon realises that there are a number of suspects who, for various reasons, may have been sufficiently motivated to do away with the old woman.

The Weirs had only moved into Spanwater, a country house set in a remote corner of the Cotswolds favoured by Romanies and Oxford dons, two years previously, having had to leave their previous residence under somewhat of a cloud after Matthew Weir, a professor, had been acquitted, somewhat to the surprise of many, of the charge of poisoning his sister-in-law. That his wife should now have been poisoned is surely more than an unfortunate coincidence.

Inheritance, inevitably, features highly as a motive. Catherine is wealthy but her wealth is subject to a tontine-like will, always an open invitation to murder, and how much Matthew will inherit, who is strapped for cash with the prospect of funding the studies of his nephew and niece looming large, is dependent upon whether a young relative, who disappeared to Australia with a dance troupe several years ago, is still alive.

Nick Terris, the nephew, is an enthusiastic supporter of euthanasia, perhaps putting his aunt out of her misery was a supreme act of kindness, and Matthew’s brother, Augustus, is strapped for the cash needed to keep his literary magazine afloat. Outside of the family, there are some odd servants, not least Mord, the butler-cum-manservant, and the religious fanatic, Ms Kingdom, who particularly has it in for a neighbour, Alice Gretton. Gretton has mysteriously disappeared, and Mrs Kingdom helpfully reports that every time Catherine visited Gretton, her health deteriorated.

Inspector Pardoe, Bowers’ sleuth, ably assisted by Sergeant Salt, the perfect foil to the more prosaic theories of his boss, set out to solve the mystery. Amidst yet another poisoning and an accident when the sterring mechanism of a car is tampered with, it becomes clear that Alice Gretton holds the key to the whole thing. What has happened to her and who was she? The answers to these questions produce an astonishing result.

Once I had got into the book, I found it entertaining enough and it was well written and well-paced. There was enough in it to persuade to continue following the adventures of Pardoe.

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