Part of the enjoyment of writing these “Classics” pieces is the chance to dig into my shelves, pull out authors I haven’t read in a long time, and discover after just a couple of chapters that, oh yes, that’s why I liked them so much.
Such a one is Catherine Aird.
Some of you are now saying, “Who?” Yet The New Yorker considered her “the very best in British mystery;’ The Times of London called her “never less than elegant and mischievously sharp;” the Washington Post said, “Aird’s intelligence shines through every sentence”—and the British Crime Writers’ Association gave her not one, but two, major awards, including their Diamond Dagger for an outstanding lifetime’s contribution to the genre, putting her in the company of such writers as P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Sue Grafton, and Elmore Leonard.
Her Chronicles of Calleshire, twenty-four books published between 1966 and 2019 (yes! At the age of 89!) is a series of wry, pungent novels combining the police procedural with the intricate puzzle mysteries of the Golden Age. As such, they are traditional in every sense of the word, but filled with adroit plotting, playful wit, and literate charm—and unafraid to address such modern topics as money laundering, drug dealers, identity theft, sexual harassment, and DNA technology.
They are set in the fictional County of Calleshire—for which, read Aird’s own County of Kent—a territory featuring one major urban area and countless villages, towns, and farms, all overseen by the Calleshire County Constabulary. Most of the major criminal matters get kicked to the Constabulary headquarters in Calleford, but not all. The rest wind up in the lap of Detective Inspector C.D. Sloan —“Christopher Dennis to his wife and parents, ‘Seedy’ to his friends” (His Burial Too, 1973)—the head of the tiny Criminal Investigation Department of F Division in Berebury.
Sloan is a meticulous man who believes in three things: instinct—“Hunch was halfway to detection” (Some Die Eloquent, 1979)—human fallibility—“There was a reason behind most human action. Not necessarily sound, but a reason all the same” (The Stately Home Murder, original British title The Complete Steel, 1969)—and, especially, detail, the accumulation of information that represents “one more small piece which, when fitted exactly together with dozens of other small pieces of truth (and lies)…immutable fact, routine inquiry, known evidence, witnesses’ stories, and a detective’s deductions, would, one day, produce a picture instead of a jigsaw” (Henrietta Who?, 1968).
You have to be careful with each of those pieces, though: “It was ingrained in him now, or so his wife, Margaret, said. In detective work, you thought in much the same way as you would pick your way across a swamp, testing for firm ground each time you took a step forward” (His Burial Too).
Sloan’s job doesn’t pay all that well, enough for a semi-detached house where he cultivates roses in his spare time and where family vacations “usually had to be traded against the redecoration of the sitting room or saving for the long overdue replacement of the family car” (Dead Heading, 2014), but the saving grace is Margaret, his wife of fifteen years, bright, lively, smart, entirely supportive, but every bit the match for him.
“It’s not too bad, being married to a policeman, is it?” he said.
“Not bad at all,” she said in the faintly dry tone she used where someone else might have got emotional.
“Wait until I’m out every night in a row for a month.”
“I’ll go home to Mother…”
“Or I have to go after a mad gunman.” He moved forward. “You’d better kiss me now in case I don’t come back when I do.”
“Idiot.” (Slight Mourning, 1975)
It’s Margaret who is responsible for one of the more terrifying experiences in Sloan’s life. Mad gunmen are no match for when he’s forced to accompany his newly pregnant wife to the ob/gyn clinic at the local hospital: “Accidents and incidents, charge room and courtroom, cottage and castle, had found the man unperturbed, his savoir-faire unshaken: but this was different” (Some Die Eloquent). Fortunately for him, he is soon called off to the mortuary to view a corpse. Margaret is not best pleased by the prospect, but raises her hand in a gesture of absolution, and Sloan is out of there like a shot.
It is also Margaret who succinctly sums up the difficulties Sloan faces at work—not the cases themselves, but the individuals with whom he must work them. “Oppressed by those above and depressed by those below,” she says (Dead Heading), and truer words were never spoken.
By “those above,” Margaret means Sloan’s boss, Superintendent Leeyes. Ah, Leeyes. As Sloan notes in Dead Heading, “The Superintendent’s default setting was a toxic mixture of disbelief and irascibility…Somehow [he] was always able to make his subordinates feel that they had kept him waiting even when they hadn’t done anything of the sort. It was, they felt, a gift.” Leeyes dislikes many things: doctors in general (“Not, mind you, that I think any of ‘em feel [remorse]. Knocked out of them all at medical school, if you ask me,” After Effects, 1996); pathologists in particular (“Try to pin them down on something and they’ll qualify every single clause of every single sentence they utter. Then, when it’s a blasted nuisance they’ll be as dogmatic as…as…as a lady magistrate,” The Religious Body, 1966); in fact anybody who actually seems to know anything (“The Superintendent’s first reaction was always the true English one of challenging the expert,” Henrietta Who?); and, of course, foreigners (“It was a close thing, but, if anything, the Superintendent’s xenophobia exceeded his notable misogynism,” After Effects).
He also dislikes leaving the office: “The Superintendent never went out on cases at all if he could help it. He stayed at the center while his myrmidons fanned out and then reported back” (Last Respects, 1982). His statements are often confounding. When Sloan expresses skepticism that a certain victim was killed by his daughter, it cuts no ice with Leeyes: “There was that one in America, Sloan. Don’t forget her. She killed her father. And her stepmother. I forget her name.” “Lizzie Borden,” supplied Sloan weakly” (His Burial Too).
And as a man who dislikes experts, Leeyes certainly doesn’t mind posing as one, often as a result of one of the many adult education courses he frequents in the evenings: “The various instruction courses attended by Police Superintendent Leeyes left their scars in a way which would have astonished the highly skilled instructors who lectured at them had they known. Like a sticky snail, the Superintendent strewed a trail of imperfectly assimilated concepts behind him: not only did they show where had been but they were a nuisance to the unwary” (His Burial Too).
If Leeyes makes the stunning observation that “Money is a factor in the crime equation,” it is because he has attended a course on “Mathematics for the Average Adult” (The Religious Body). If he remarks sagely on “the unity of opposites—Yin and Yang,” it is because of “Eastern Philosophies for Inquiring Minds” (Some Die Eloquent). Over the years, he has partaken of classes in logic, management, English literature, ornithology, wine appreciation, famous French writers, twentieth century British prime ministers, French Without Tears, Rudyard Kipling, and Archaeology for the Uninitiated, and imparted his wisdom thereof. Of course, he hasn’t always completed those courses. One time, he was asked to leave a science class “over a misunderstanding about Galileo, velocity, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa” (After Effects). Another time, he had started to attend a series of lectures on modern verse, “but had left, declaring to all and sundry that poems weren’t what they used to be when he was a lad” (Dead Heading).
Yes, Leeyes is a trial, but there is one thing about which he is correct. Remember, Margaret Sloan also said “depressed by those below.” Most of Sloan’s police colleagues are perfectly solid and able, but there is one in particular for whom that is not the case. That would be Detective Constable William Crosby, or the “defective constable,” as he is known: “Raw, perky, and consciously representing the younger generation in the force, he was one of those who provoked Superintendent Leeyes into observing (at least once every day) that these young constables weren’t what they were” (The Religious Body). “The despair of all the ranks above him in the police hierarchy, Detective Constable Crosby had so far shown enthusiasm for only one thing. Driving fast cars fast….There was a legend in Berebury Police Station that Constable Crosby’s promotion out of the uniformed branch had stemmed entirely from some typist’s error: and that somewhere there languished on a lonely beat a man with a name nearly the same” (A Late Phoenix, 1970).
Unfortunately for Sloan, the few good men in his department are always occupied elsewhere when he catches a new case—and so it is always Crosby with whom he is saddled: “If he’s with you,” says Leeyes, “then he’s not here. And I’m not having him underfoot in the station today a moment longer than I have to” (After Effects).
Crosby has few investigative skills, little imagination, and is prone to gaffes. Sloan tries to talk him through the cases anyway, because the boy’s got to learn somehow, but even he has his limits. Discussing the sudden disappearance of a corpse, he says:
“It can’t have escaped your notice, Crosby, that the body wasn’t found in the Library.”
“Somebody removed it from the Library.”
“Well done. The murderer, would you think? Or did someone come along and tidy it away just to be helpful?”
“Unlikely, that, sir.”
“Of course it’s unlikely,” snapped Sloan. Sarcasm was a real boomerang of a weapon. He should have remembered that” (The Stately Home Murder).
As Sloan says with a shake of his head in Henrietta Who?, “Don’t strain yourself thinking too hard, Constable, will you?”
It also doesn’t help Sloan’s nerves that Crosby is inordinately fond of bad puns. In The Religious Body, Crosby’s doggerel—“You may kill a nun once,/You may kill a nun twice,/But you mustn’t get into the habit”—is bad enough. But then in Last Respects, well, I’ll let Aird tell it:
“What sits at the bottom of the sea and shivers?”
In the grip of powerful emotion and with an awful fascination, Sloan heard himself say, “I don’t know what sits at the bottom of the sea and shivers.”
“A nervous wreck.”
It’s no wonder he says with a sigh in His Burial Too: “If, Crosby, you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to be a horrible warning, that’s all.”
Aird has fun with some of the other supporting characters, too. One is Dr. Dabbe, the department’s consulting pathologist, a driver even more reckless than Crosby with “a sense of humor fit to make your blood run cold” (His Burial Too)—“There was only one thing worse than a pathologist in a bad mood,” Sloan muses in A Lost Phoenix, “a pathologist in a playful mood.” Typical for him is this exchange over a corpse with his laconic assistant, Burns, during a postmortem:
“I haven’t missed any gunshot wounds, have I, Burns?”
“No, Doctor,” said the assistant, adding, deadpan, “not yet.”
This was evidently a private joke between master and man.
“Nor a stab in the back?”
“The back has not been stabbed,” said Burns.
“That leaves the field clear to begin then,” said Dabbe.
Other such characters not to miss: a lugubrious man called Harpe in charge of the Traffic Division—“He had a reputation for having never been known to smile, which reputation he hotly defended on the grounds that there had never been anything to smile about in Traffic Division. He was accordingly known as Happy Harpe” (Henrietta Who?); the “elderly, dyspeptic and very, very slow constable in the Records Department” nicknamed Lightning Brown (A Late Phoenix); the village grocer called Half-currant Kelway, “His scales never went down too heavily on the customer’s side – and he’d been known to chop a currant in two” (Slight Mourning); and the very patient and often very overmatched town solicitors of the delightfully-named firm of Puckle, Puckle, and Nunnery (Inheritance Tracks, 2019; A Going Concern, 1993; and several others).
Sloan soldiers on through an ever-perplexing panoply of murder cases— intricate puzzles that often begin unusually, head off quickly in one direction, then zigzag somewhere else entirely (but fairly).
With this cast of characters, Sloan soldiers on through an ever-perplexing panoply of murder cases— intricate puzzles that often begin unusually, head off quickly in one direction, then zigzag somewhere else entirely (but fairly). A distraught daughter IDs her mother’s body, only to learn from the postmortem that her “mother” never had a child (Henrietta Who?); a man dies in a car crash, but the autopsy shows he would have died anyway from poisoning (Slight Mourning); a building project uncovers a woman’s skeleton in the ruins of a house bombed thirty years before in World War II, but it wasn’t the bombs that killed her (A Late Phoenix); a human finger dropped by a crow leads to the discovery of a naked, headless corpse on the roof of a barn (Harm’s Way, 1984); two patients die on the same day, one in hospital, one at home, neither of them a surprise, until the doctor disappears (After Effects); the bequeathed coffin of a 3000-year-old Egyptian mummy turns out to contain instead a very recently murdered young woman (Little Knell, 2001); an open-and-shut murder case of a crime of passion becomes complicated when the murderess on trail refuses to utter a single word (A Dead Liberty, 1986); a golfing amateur goes in search of a wayward ball, but discovers something quite different buried feet first in a sand bunker (A Hole in One, 2005); a painting is stolen as the manor house depicted in it goes up in flames, and a pile of human bones is found in the ashes (Losing Ground, 2007).
That’s a lot of murder for a small department. Even though Aird has fun with her characters, she takes murder seriously. She is also unafraid to go after politicians, warmongers, and anyone else she considers morally deficient:
Sloan wondered just how much of a misfit you’d have to be to hand a man a dollop of poison and wait for him to die. Selfish, for a start, to need to do it anyway; conceited to think you could do it and get away with it; clever to do it and get as far as he had done; cruel not to care how and when a man died; calculating, to weigh the pros and cons, because if there was one thing which stood out like a sore thumb about this case it was no eleventh hour job. There wasn’t a single sign of blind panic or urgent fear anywhere… (Slight Mourning)
“It’s in families that there’s the greatest danger of murder,” he said seriously. Nervous old ladies, afraid to go out in the dark, never believed it, of course. Nobody liked to believe that the greatest danger of murder came from one’s nearest and dearest; that home was where the real danger of violence lay. The bedroom for the woman, the kitchen for the man, and the bathroom for the baby— where they were most likely to be strangled, stabbed, and drowned—in that order. The Home Office did their sums and said so. (Some Die Eloquent)
“[Politicians] call their mistakes by other names…Names like ‘progress,’ ‘inevitable change,’ ‘the march of events.’ Anything but the truth”….A lot of politicians duck when they see trouble coming. They get diplomatic illnesses…And then they leave the dirty work for the police.” (Parting Breath, 1977)
[The investigation of a World War II murder leads Sloan to consider politics, war, and Superintendent Leeyes’ scornful dismissal of the younger generation]
Had it stopped being “politics” and become “failed diplomacy” by the time the bombs began to drop?…But there was a difference between now and last time. Fallout wasn’t just a barrack square phrase any more. He didn’t know what prophylactics there were against bombing nowadays. Perhaps there wasn’t any. Perhaps that was why there were those who rallied to the cry of ‘Make love not war.’ [Leeyes says contemptuously, “Look at them. Where shall we be, Sloan, when they’re our only army?”] Very probably, [Sloan] thought, in the same situation they would be if they weren’t…Perhaps the only real hope was that there wouldn’t be an army. What was it that someone was postulating? That these unaggressive youngsters were Nature’s response to the manufacture of wholesale weapons, chain reactions, total destruction. Nature always bent herself in the direction of the survival of the species…. (A Late Phoenix)
* * *
So who is Catherine Aird? For starters—that isn’t her name. It’s Kinn Hamilton McIntosh, derived from her mother’s maiden name of Kinnis. When her first book was accepted, Aird said, she was told to go away and get herself a name that people would recognize as a man or a woman, and so she worked her way through the family tree until she finally came to a great-great-grandmother named Catherine Aird.
She was born in Yorkshire in 1930 and, taking after her physician father, was on her way to Edinburgh University to study medicine, when a severe illness confined her to bed for a very long stretch of time. Upon recovery, she worked for her father instead, managing his practice in Sturry, near Canterbury in Kent, and dispensing the drugs he prescribed, which became useful later on. She became familiar with the properties of many poisons and drugs, which provided valuable information for a budding crime writer. “Then, too, you really experience drama when you live in a medical practice. [Their home was directly upstairs] You see life very much up close.”
In her spare time, she became a voracious reader of crime fiction, especially writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, and Emma Lathen, and finally decided it was time to write something herself. “When I was about thirty, I began asking myself if I was really serious about becoming a writer. I decided to get on with it.” She wrote two full-length books—one fiction, one nonfiction—“neither of which has ever seen the light of day. Subsequently, I wrote a detective story that I didn’t think was up to standard. I also suppressed that.”
Even though her father’s practice was her first priority, and writing was done in whatever time she had left over, he was still not particularly supportive of her ambitions: “My father was a critic first and foremost, and very exacting to himself and to other people. He would always look for faults first. But in a way living with this kind of attitude probably does jack your own sense up a bit; if you know that somebody is going to find fault with everything you do, then you try to make sure there aren’t any faults to be found.”
Finally, she produced two manuscripts that she felt had promise, The Religious Body and a crime novel called A Most Contagious Game, which didn’t feature Sloan, because he didn’t fit into the plot of that story (see Book Bonus below).
She sent the manuscript of The Religious Body off to various publishers, who promptly sent it back, and then somebody clued her in that if she wanted to get anywhere, she needed a literary agent—a lesson many writers have learned to their pain. “So I copied off the rejection letters and sent them to five literary agents in turn, saying, ‘Am I wasting everybody’s time? These are the letters I’ve had back from the publishers.’” Four of them indeed said they were not even interested in reading the book, but the fifth one was considerably more enthusiastic—and quickly found a home for it. “I then had the rather enjoyable experience after the book appeared of having two of the four agents who hadn’t bothered to read the book write to me, not realizing, of course, that I was the same person, and offering to act for me.”
The Religious Body appeared in 1966—she was now 36—and A Most Contagious Game the year after. The reception for the first book, though, was so strong that her publisher felt that more Sloan novels was the way to go. That remained the case ever after. She continued to work for her father during his lifetime and, in the late 1980s, paused for a few years to take care of her mother, who had become increasingly frail. Interestingly enough, her mother had never been much of a fan of her novels, either. She didn’t approve of detective fiction, and kept telling her she ought to be writing something else, which Aird thankfully ignored. One side note to this, however: Aird says her mother was able to take her books after just the first couple of chapters, write down the name of the murderer, put it into an envelope, and not open it until the end of the book—and she was always right. I dare you to try it.
“A village is a confined society, one in which you can isolate yourself and your fiction. Writing a book requires a milieu within which your detective has to operate.”
Meanwhile, Aird immersed herself in the village life of Sturry, for both personal and professional reasons. For the latter, “a village is a confined society, one in which you can isolate yourself and your fiction. Writing a book requires a milieu within which your detective has to operate.” But she also fell in love with that life, which led to the writing of several nonfiction village histories, beginning with Sturry and proceeding from there. She even served on the Sturry Parish Council for nine years, which entailed among other things being chairman of the Burial Committee responsible for the administration of the local cemetery—another useful experience for a crime novelist.
At the same time, she became deeply involved with the Girl Guide Movement as well, the equivalent of the Girl Scouts in the U.S., and rose to become chairman of the Guides’ U.K. Finance Committee, and then assistant treasurer of the World Association of the Girl Guides and Girl Scouts. For that service, she received an accolade that she may have cherished just as much as the honors from the CWA—she was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 1988. And, replacing the lost degree from Edinburgh University, she was awarded an honorary Master’s degree from Kent University in 1985.
Through it all, there was the satisfaction of creating her books. “It has never seemed like work to me. I was once waiting for a friend who was a newspaper editor. I was going to meet him and his wife at the station, and their train was late. His wife got very agitated to think that I was standing at the station waiting for them, and he said something to her that I thought was very true, because he too was a writer. He said, ‘Oh no, she’s a writer. Writers are never bored wherever they are.’ Everything you do, and every situation you find yourself in, is potential grist for the mill.”
Will there be another book beyond 2019’s Inheritance Tracks? There is no way to know. One thing is certain, however: Catherine Aird will never be bored.
The Essential Aird
With any prolific author, readers are likely to have their own particular favorites, which may not be the same as anyone else’s. Your list is likely to be just as good as mine – but here are the ones I recommend.
“Er, what gives?”
“Didn’t you get the message?” Sloan pressed the bell. “Something nasty has happened to a nun.”
That’s our initial glimpse of Sloan and Crosby, in chapter two of the first Calleshire novel, but it’s the first five pages of that book that have already established Aird as a force to be reckoned with. For those five pages, we get brilliant, wonderfully concise thumbnails of many key inhabitants of the Convent of St. Anselm, as Sister Mary Gertrude makes her five-thirty a.m, rounds to wake them up one by one. Mother Mary St. Therese is the one with a memory like a set of archives and “woe betide any Reverend Mother with an eye for innovation.” Sister Hilda is the one with the stentorian snores that can be heard six doors away. Sister Peter is young and inclined to start nervously when spoken to.
The only one who doesn’t reply is Sister Anne, who is not in her bed. That is because she is spread-eagled on the floor at the bottom of the cellar steps, quite dead.
Sloan and Crosby respond, and find that interviewing fifty-five nuns as potential murder suspects is no simple task. Any eyewitness accounts are complicated by their habits making them all look similar; several of the women have alarming personal histories; and a Guy Fawkes Day bonfire at the nearby agricultural college soon turns out to feature an effigy dressed in a missing nun’s habit—and Sister Anne’s eyeglasses.
Much more is yet to come before both murderer and motive are exposed, including a slew of red herrings, sardonic musings on the cloistered life, and some priceless character bits.
Everyone agrees that Beatrice Gwendoline Wansdyke, the chemistry mistress at Berebury Grammar School for Girls, is not a woman to be trifled with. Girls who make sweeping statements once seldom make them a second time, and colleagues who make unsupported assertions have them challenged speedily. Science is paramount to Wansdyke and anything else is not even worth considering—economics, for instance, “was not a proper teaching entity at all, but an ill-defined gray area, which knew no morality, somewhere between geography and history…A science it certainly was not.”
When she dies at the age of 59, from her longtime diabetes, some people are sad, some are relieved, but no one expects there to be a postmortem. It was natural causes, wasn’t it? Perfectly natural, confirms Dr. Dabbe. So what’s the problem? asks Sloan.
“The problem,” said Dr. Dabbe, “is not so much what she died from as what she died with, if you see what I mean.”
“No,” said Sloan uncompromisingly, “I don’t see what you mean. What did she die with?”
“A quarter of a million pounds,” said the doctor.
Noone has the slightest idea where that money came from, but as Sloan starts to poke around, anomalies keep popping up, relatives keep acting odd, and when the dead woman’s missing dog shows up, equally dead, its throat cut, he knows that dark forces are at work, and that if he can’t clear this up soon, the result will be very bad: “Something that is going to happen. That was always the policeman’s especial nightmare: the spur that kept the officer on the job long after people in other occupations had gone home for the night.”
But he may already be too late.
A Going Concern (1993)
“I want you to examine my corpse. And properly, mind you. None of this just pulling back the sheet for a quick look.”
That was one of eighty-year-old Olivia Garamond’s last wishes before she died, and the other wishes were just as odd. She wanted a police presence at her funeral, she’d pre-drafted death notices to be placed in several particular publications, she wanted the executrix to be a great-niece she’d met exactly once—and that girl was given even more precise and unusual instructions.
But when Olivia Garamond’s house is broken into and her papers ransacked, it begins to occur to all concerned that perhaps her written requests were not simply the ramblings of a senile old lady, but the actions of a woman in fear for her life. That is when a casual comment by her doctor—“I remember being told by someone that she’d done something unusual by way of war-work”—sends Sloan and Crosby tumbling back through the decades, digging deep into both her personal and professional life, until at last it all leads back to one of the most dramatic military events of 1940—and one of the most pitiless murder methods of 1993.
“Hell is empty,” she’d told her doctor, “and all the devils are here.” She was right. This is one of Aird’s most chilling stories.
As noted above, Aird began her publishing career with two novels—the first Sloan and a crime novel called A Most Contagious Game—but her publisher wanted more Sloans, so the latter remained her only fictional departure. In a way, it’s a homage to one of Aird’s favorite authors, Josephine Tey, and her masterwork, A Daughter of Time. A wealthy businessman named Harding is forced to retire early because of a bad heart, buys a Tudor manor house in the country, and settles in, but he’s used to being busy and quickly gets bored. He abruptly stops being bored when he takes a peek behind some oak paneling and discovers a secret room there—containing a 200-year-old skeleton with a fractured skull.
He decides to poke around, research the house’s owners and history, ask some questions, but encounters some very puzzling resistance from the local village, and from the local police, who are more occupied with trying to catch the murderer of the “Calleford blonde,” found strangled, with her husband disappeared and thus a prime suspect.
Inevitably, Harding is drawn deep into both mysteries, and his research into the village and its inhabitants (reminiscent of Aird’s own love of village histories) quickly draws him into some very dangerous territory, until, at last, he is able to unmask not one murderer, but two.
It’s a delightful book, and I strongly recommend it to any fan of traditional mysteries.
Aird also wrote many short stories, and they’ve been collected into three volumes: Injury Time (1994), Chapter and Hearse (2003), and Last Writes (2014). As you might expect, these are literate, ingenious puzzles filled with Aird’s typical wit, plotting, and surprise endings. Some of them feature Sloan and Crosby, but Aird also went further afield. Of particular interest are the stories of Henry Tyler of the Foreign Office, who is importuned by friends and family members for help, and Sheriff Rhuaraidh Macmillan of sixteenth-century Scotland, during the time of Mary Stuart. Macmillan is a keen observer and no fool and, with her other heroes, demonstrates the breadth of Aird’s interests and her ability to summon up all sorts of people, places, and time periods.
Only one of Aird’s books was ever made into a movie—Henrietta Who?, which became a Dutch film called De Prooi. According to what I’ve found, it basically takes the premise of Aird’s book—a teenager discovers after her mother’s death that the woman had, in fact, never had any children, and sets out to uncover the truth—and spins it in various lurid directions, including a peep show in Amsterdam’s red-light district, which offers the occasion for a fair amount of toplessness. So…yeah.
“[He] made the commonest of mistakes and buried her in quicklime,” carried on Sloan. “Murderers will do it.”
“The amateurs, anyway,” said Leeyes grandly. “They read too much crime fiction.” (Dead Heading)
“The Superintendent groaned irritably. “Not another of those locked room mysteries, Sloan, I hope. I can’t stand them.” (His Burial Too)
One of Aird’s signatures is her bravura arias of dialogue in which two or more characters discuss facts, suppositions, evidence, theories, and setbacks in dizzy, rapid-fire dialogue. Here is just one page out of a five-page sequence, the whole of which finds Henrietta, the daughter-not-daughter of Henrietta Who?, along with her solicitor, and Bill Thorpe, the man who loves her, trying to figure all the many ramifications of the mother who isn’t her mother and may have been murdered; and the father who may or may not have been her father and who may or may not have been a decorated soldier and who may or may not, in fact, be dead.
“This may sound very silly,” she said, choosing her words carefully, “but let me say what I know for certain. There is a photograph…”
“The photograph is a fact,” acknowledged Bill Thorpe.
“Which you have seen.”
“Then the photograph is doubly a fact,” he murmured ironically.
“There is a photograph of a man in a uniform of this regiment in the drawing room at home, and…”
“And that,” said Bill Thorpe, “is all you know for certain.”
She stared at him. “A man who I thought was my father.”
“Ah, that’s different.”
“Who I thought was called Jenkins.”
“Who may or may not be called Jenkins.”
“And who I thought was killed in the war.”
Bill Thorpe pointed to the memorial again. “Don’t you see that he might be called Jenkins or he might have been killed in the war – but not both. The facts are mutually exclusive – unless he changed regiments halfway through or something out of the ordinary like that.”
“Or died a natural death,” persisted the girl.
“Or a very unnatural one,” retorted Thorpe.
“Well,” said Thorpe, defensively, “if he’d been shot as a spy or a deserter or something like that…”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
“…We’re hardly likely to find his name here, are we?” Bill waved a hand which took in all the hallowed thirteenth-century stone about them.
“That means,” decided Henrietta logically, “that you don’t think the man in the photograph is…” she hesitated, “or was my father.”
“There is something wrong with the medals…”
“There is something wrong with everything so far,” rejoined Henrietta. “We’re collecting quite a bit of negative evidence.”
“Just as useful as the other sort,” declared Thorpe.
“I’m glad to hear it,” she said rather tartly. “At the moment the only thing we seem to be absolutely sure about is that there is a photograph of a sergeant in the East Calleshires which has been standing in Boundary Cottage ever since I can remember.”
“The photograph is a fact,” agreed Bill Thorpe with undiminished amiability.
“And so is the name of Jenkins not being on this memorial.”
“The evidence is before our very eyes, as the conjurors say.”
“And the police say Grace Jenkins wasn’t my mother.”
Bill Thorpe looked down at her affectionately. “I reckon that makes you utterly orphan, don’t you?”