"Surely a collection of old books is harmless enough?"- Bobby Owen (E.R. Punshon's Comes a Stranger, 1938)
Jill Paton Walsh is a British novelist, who began her career as an author of children's fiction, but during the early 1990s she turned her eye to detective stories and her first, tentative steps in the genre were shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger Award – which was an auspicious beginning. However, Paton garnered most of her fame, as a mystery novelist, when she was tapped by the estate of Dorothy L. Sayers to complete her unfinished Lord Peter Wimsey novel, Thrones, Dominations (1998). She has since then penned three additional books based on the characters created by the Queen of the Literary Detective Novel.
As a purist snob, I tend to curl my upper lip in absolute disgust at the mere idea of pastiches. I share Rex Stout's sentiment when he said that writers should "roll their own," but there are a few, rare exceptions that even I found impossible to condemn, because they actually respected and did justice to the original – one of these exceptions to the rule was Walsh's Thrones, Dominations.
Walsh's commentary on the completion of the unfinished manuscript showed the kind of respect you should expect from a writer handling someone else's creations. She mentioned that "the fragmented notes made it clear who the murderer was," but felt tempted to "invert her scheme" and make "the victim top the murderer." But it was Sayers' book and therefore Walsh followed her pattern, which is what made Thrones, Dominations and A Presumption of Death (2002) such pleasant reads.
So the remaining titles in this continuation of the Lord Peter Wimsey series, The Attenbury Emeralds (2010) and The Late Scholar (2013), were jotted down on my never-ending wishlist years ago, but also wanted to sample some of Walsh's own crime-fiction. I actually collected all but one of them over the years and dumped them on the big pile. It was kind of time I finally took a look at one of them.
The Wyndham Case (1993) is the first of four novels about Walsh's own series-character, Imogen Quy, a college nurse attached to the fictional St. Agatha's College, Cambridge. My reason for picking this particular title is that I had seen it billed as a locked room mystery, but that turned out not to be the case. However, it was still a good detective novel in the tradition of such (lesser-known) literary Crime Queens as Dorothy Bowers, Joanna Cannan and Elizabeth Gill.
The story begins with Walsh's heroine, Nurse Quy, being dragged by the Master to the Wyndham Library where the body of Philip Skellow, a history student with a scholarship, was found spread-eagled beneath the famous "Wyndham Case" - a ginormous, "two-storey bookcase of ancient oak" with "a little gallery running along it."
Wyndham Library was bequeathed to the college by a seventeenth century occultist, Christopher Wyndham, who was a "passionate opponent of Sir Isaac Newton," but the Wyndham Bequest came with a series of conditions that proved to troublesome as the time went on.
A permanent, overpaid library keeper was to be appointed and his only task was to make sure no books were taken out, or added to the collection, which consisted of books dealing with such obscure and rejected ideas that they were only of interest for "their splendid binding" or the insight they offered on "the history of typography" - which means they were "reverently inspected, but never read." Wyndham also designed the special lock on the door and only two people were supposed to be in possession of the keys: the library keeper and an (unknown) auditor. One every century, on an unknown date, the college is visited by an auditor to inspect the library. So a lot of trouble to simply become the custodians of a burdensome collection of ancient, yellowing tomes without any appear to scholars, but the college was in financial dire straits in 1692 and could not afford to turn the bequest down.
All of the conditions Wyndham placed on the college was the first domino stone to fall in a long series of events that resulted in several deaths, but I'll return to that aspect of the plot later on in the review.
First of all, there's the police investigation and Quy finds herself working on the inside of the college to help her policeman friend, Mike Parsons, with clearing up the numerous questions surrounding the death of the young student. One of them is what Philip was doing in the library, after dark, and how he obtained access to the vault-like room, but there's also the inexplicable pool of wet blood around the head of the stiffened body – as he was not a haemophiliac. Quy is the kept the busiest with sorting out the mess of Philip's college life. Philip was "a grammar-school boy," with poor parents, who was not very popular with his more well-to-do peers, such as his roommate, but lately, he had ready cash to spend. Who did he get the money? Why did his roommate, Jack Taversham, suddenly disappear? And how is all of this related to the drowning of a medic student in the fountain pool?
What impressed me the most about all of the plot-threads is not only how tightly they're interwoven with one another, but how they're depended upon one another to have played out in the way they did. It's like one, long row of falling domino stones that began in the late 1600s and if one thing had gone differently nobody would have died.
If the Wyndham Bequest had not such idiotic, strenuous conditions the subsequent tragedies would simply not have happened. If the Domestic Bursar of St. Agatha's College had assigned Philip and Jack to different rooms, the former probably would not have died on the cold floor of the library. If Philip had not planned an Easter holiday in Kashmir or forgot his appointment with Quy to get holiday inoculations he would certainly not have died (etc, etc, etc).
It's one of the best examples of the Merrivalean "blinkin' awful cussedness of things in general" at work, which is a lovely way to structure a plot, but it should be pointed out that the actual clues are rather thinly spread around – which might be a problem for an armchair detective. There is, however, an important clue hidden early on in the story that should tell you what Philip was doing in the library and how he got pass the locked door, but, as you probably guessed from this blog-post, that's only a minor part of the overall plot. So you have to keep that in mind when you pick up The Wyndham Case.
All in all, The Wyndham Case is a well-written mystery novel, like a modern Crime Queen, with a tricky plot structure that's as unusual as it satisfying, but not one that really lends itself to the reader who wants to play armchair detective. Once again, you have to keep that in mind. However, in spite of this minor reserve, The Wyndham Case is light-years ahead, in overall quality, of pretty much 99% of what has been published since the 1960s under the banner of crime-and detective fiction. I can specifically recommend the book to readers who love the Golden Age Crime Queens and their followers.
Finally, the next blog-post will probably be a review of a locked room novel, but I'm torn between two options. One of them is a writer from the seventies and eighties who penned three locked room mysteries and the other one is an obscure Dutch novel from the early 2000s with a very unusual impossible situation. Ah, luxury problems!