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Five To Five

A review of Five to Five by Dorothy Erskine Muir

I am going through a phase of sampling authors from the so-called Golden Age of detective fiction who are new to me. Dorothy Erskine Muir is the latest to fall into this category. Astonishingly, she was one of seventeen children sired by John Sheepshanks, Bishop of Norwich. She worked as an academic tutor but started writing professionally, mainly historical non-fiction, to supplement her income following the unexpected death of her husband. Among her published works, though, were three murder mysteries, of which this is the second, originally issued in 1934, and now plucked out of undeserved obscurity by the enterprising Moonstone Press.

Perhaps because of her interest in history, Erskine Muir chose to base her murder mysteries around examples of true crimes. Five to Five takes as its premise the notorious murder of a wealthy 82-year-old woman, Marion Gilchrist, who was murdered on December 21, 1908, bludgeoned to death, after her maidservant had left the flat in Glasgow to do some errands. Miss Gilchrist obviously knew her attacker as there was no evidence of forced entry. From her extensive jewellery collection, only one large diamond brooch was found to be missing.

The police arrested Oscar Slater and on rather flimsy evidence was found guilty in 1909 of Gilchrist’s murder and sentenced to hang, although it was later commuted to imprisonment. He was eventually released after several enquiries and much campaigning on his behalf by, amongst others, Conan Doyle, after serving nineteen years of hard labour. It was one of Scotland’s most egregious miscarriages of justice.

Erskine Muir chose to revisit the case, with different characters and essay a cogent and plausible solution to the case. Her Miss Gilchrist is a rather unpleasant, miserly old man, Simon Ewing, who has an extensive collection of jade and jewellery. As is the wont of these characters, he is unwilling to help his impecunious relatives. When he is left in his flat unattended, he is bludgeoned to death.

In the flat below, there is a family gathering and when they hear the crash, a couple go upstairs to investigate and a stranger passes them on the stairs making their way to the exit. Was this the murderer? Did they really not recognise him? All that was missing were two rings from Ewing’s fingers and one piece of diamond jewellery.

The task of discovering what had happened to Ewing and why falls to Detective Inspector Woods, who performs his duties diligently and with some compassion. As the title suggests, much of the investigation focuses on who was where and at what time and the accuracy or otherwise of various timepieces which the suspects used to vouch for their alibis. Inevitably, once Woods realises that they are not all telling the same time he begins to make some progress, but it takes a second murder for the pieces to fall into place.

Erskine Muir writes with verve, varies the focal point of the narrative with some aplomb, develops her characters so that they are more than ciphers, and does a fine job of keeping the momentum going, when in less skilled hands the establishing and dismantling of alibis can become a tad wearisome. Her solution is elegant with a twist that many readers, this one included, might not have seen coming and, unlike in the Slater case, justice is seen to be done.

Although the book will not be up there amongst the genre’s true classics, I enjoyed it and will read her other two novels.

Fern Lore

Dense stands of Britain’s most common fern, Pteridium aquilinum, bracken, carpet the floor of the woodlands near where I live, marking the progress of the year. Their tightly curled fronds appear in spring, slowly but inexorably unfurling into three large, triangular fronds which wave and susurrate in the summer breeze before dying back in the autumn to leave a rusty brown matting.

Sculptural, dramatic, primordial they may be, but the fronds of bracken are also poisonous, packed full of Ptaquiloside, up to 0.8 percent of their dry weight some studies suggest, which can cause haemorrhagic disease and bright blindness in livestock and oesophageal and gastric cancer in humans. The Koreans, though, have been able to make gosari, bracken, a principal ingredient in bibimbap, a classic and delicious staple of their cuisine, by simply boiling the fronds which breaks down the toxins.

Bracken has long been a source of fascination. The stem, when sliced at an angle, reveals a pattern, known as the devil’s hoof in Scotland, but which many saw as representing the Greek letter chi, the initial of Christ. From this sprang the belief that it provided protection. Waving a frond in front of a witch was enough to ward off her spells and send werewolves and other evil spirits packing. In Brittany and Normandy shepherds used crosses woven from ferns to safeguard themselves and their flocks while in Slavic countries, to drive away Rusalki, freshwater sirens with a penchant for drowning mortals, bathers entwined ferns into their hair before taking a plunge into a lake.

And how did the fern, which has no discernible flower or seed, propagate itself? After all, as the French botanist, Joseph Pitton de Tournefort, wrote in 1694, “the views of those who believe all plants have seeds are founded on very reasonable conjectures”. As plants, ferns must have flowers and seeds. The only logical conclusion was that they bloomed and produce their seeds when no one was around to see them.

It was believed that what the pastoral poet, William Browne, described as the “wondrous one-night seeding ferne” in Britannia’s Pastorals (1613) took place on the stroke of midnight on Midsummer’s Eve or St John’s Eve. Conveniently, it was not only the shortest night of the year but also the exact moment that John the Baptist was said to have been born. The fern would produce a bright red flower that lit up the woods only to be immediately snatched by the devil.

Others thought it was blue, always tricky to be sure when you have never seen it, while in Polish folklore the bloom would last until the first cockerel had crowed in the morning. According to some traditions, those lucky enough to find fern seeds would have all their wishes come true, while in England their possession brought success in love. Youths would go to Boggart Hole Clough near Manchester in search of the “seeds of St John’s fern on the Eve of St John’s Day” to win the hearts of those maidens who had previously spurned their advances.

Ban Of The Week

It might seem a drop in the ocean but having a pee in the sea off Vigo, the Galician seaside resort in northern Spain, could land you in hot water.

The council have just passed a byelaw that explicitly states that anyone caught urinating “in the sea or on the beach” could be subject to a fine of up to €750, declaring the practice to be a hygiene and sanitary risk as well as having the potential to affect the local wildlife. Vigo joins Portugal and parts of Thailand in banning the practice.

The Vigan council are installing more public toilets to meet demand during the peak tourist season but are remaining tight-lipped as to how they propose to impose the ban, leading some to speculate that it is more froth than substance.

Acrostic Of The Week

Getting the right choice of words to put on the gravestone of a loved one can be a tricky business. There are so many pitfalls that most of the inscriptions are little more than a variation on a theme, the details of the deceased and a trite message of affection.

Steven Paul Owens died aged 59 in September 2021 and his family have erected a headstone in his honour at Warren-Powers Cemetery in Polk County in Iowa. The inscription reads “Forever in our hearts, until we meet again, cherished memories, known as: our son, brother, father, papa, uncle, friend & cousin”. Quite touching.

However, the formatting of the inscription over seven lines has upset the Camp Township Board of Trustees, who are responsible for the graveyard, because the first letter of each line forms an acrostic spelling out the phrase Fuck Off. It is no unhappy accident as, according to Owens’ family, the deceased used it as a term of endearment and that if he said it to you, it meant that he liked you. If he didn’t like you, he simply stayed quiet.

As no word has been forthcoming from the deceased on the furore, I can only assume that he is not happy.

Thirty-Two Of The Gang

What is a pig month? According to James Ware in his Passing English of a Victorian Era it was any of the eight months without an R in their name when it was said to be safe to eat pork.

Pork is a common ingredient in pies. One of the first pie shops in London was established by Henry Blanchard, probably from around 1844. There all manner of pies could be purchased, ranging from fruit to meat to eel. It proved enormously popular with the paying public as pies cost just one penny. It was less well received by the itinerant pie sellers. Henry Mayhew, in his London Labour and the London Poor, noted that “the penny pie shops, the street men say, have done their trade a great deal of harm. These shops have now got mostly all the custom, as they make pies much larger for the money than those sold in the street”.

Perhaps these disgruntled pie sellers were instrumental for coining the phrase pie shop as a synonym for a dog, for the simple expedient that was what they alleged to be the main ingredient of the pies.

In street argot a pill was a dose, punishment suffering or a sentence because of being endless in its application. A pill pusher, though, was a doctor.

An objection that could be levied at Johnson’s government is that they are guilty of podsnappery. This was defined as “a wilful determination to ignore the objectionable or inconvenient, at the same time assuming airs of superior virtue and noble resignation”. If only the latter was true.