Murder at the flood – Mabel Esther Allan


Murder at the Flood is a terrifically atmospheric murder mystery set in Norfolk in the 1950s. It’s been reprinted by the wonderful Greyladies. I love the quote on their homepage, “Quirky, witty, intelligent, unexpected. Well-mannered books by ladies long gone.” I’ve read 2 of their titles & have another half-dozen on the tbr shelves & I agree with them so far! The author of Murder at the Flood, Mabel Esther Allan, was a children’s author & this was her only published adult book. I wish she’d kept writing mysteries as I loved this & read it very quickly.

Emily Varney is the young wife of the vicar of Marshton, a village on the Norfolk fens. She’s also the detective novelist, A E Sebastian, but she has so far kept this a secret as she doesn’t think the villagers would take too kindly to the vicar’s wife working, even as a novelist. The book opens on a windy, stormy day. Emily feels unsettled by the weather & uneasy about the mysterious letter her husband, Richard, received that morning. Richard has a secret but he hasn’t confided in Emily. Emily also has a secret as she’s being blackmailed by the obnoxious Thomas Long, the local garage owner, who has discovered her other life as A E Sebastian. Long is a violent drunk, cruel to his wife & his daughter, Betony. Soon, Emily’s own problems are overtaken by the news that the river banks have flooded & a stream of villagers & local people start arriving at the higher ground of the church & vicarage looking for refuge. At the same time, Thomas Long is found murdered in the churchyard. Not only Emily & Richard seem to have had a motive for killing Long as he was blackmailing many other people, including local author, Mr Abel-Otty, a man with an eye for a pretty face & Caroline High, the young schoolteacher recently returned to the village.

As the villagers cram into the church, & the village is cut off by flood waters, pompous Mr Pike (who fancies himself as a detective) & sensible Colonel Pashley, decide to investigate Long’s murder while they wait for the police to arrive. Unfortunately, Mr Pike antagonises everyone with his insinuations & insensitive questioning & the rumours become more outrageous. Several people with a motive for killing Long, including his own wife & daughter, were near the churchyard at the critical time but it’s when the rumourmongers decide that Richard is the murderer that Emily is stung into action. She decides that her talents as a detective novelist will help her to find the truth but not before many secrets are revealed & another murder is committed.

The flood adds a feeling of claustrophobia to this story. The realistic details of the struggle to clothe & feed all the refugees adds to the terror Emily feels when she fears that Richard will be forever tainted by the rumours if the true murderer isn’t discovered. The villagers are a realistically drawn group of people, most of them frightened by the flood, worried about their houses & possessions & revelling in spreading nasty rumours to take their minds off their troubles. Murder at the Flood is a great read that I’d recommend to anyone who enjoys a Golden Age mystery.

The setting reminded me very much of one of my favourite movies, Thunder on the Hill, made in 1951. This is also set during a flood on the Norfolk fens at a convent hospital high on a hill. A young woman played by Ann Blyth is being taken to Norwich to be hanged for the murder of her invalid brother when the flood forces her & her escort to take refuge at the convent. Sister Mary Bonaventure (Claudette Colbert) decides the woman isn’t guilty & sets out to reinvestigate the crime. Gladys Cooper, one of my favourite actresses, plays a splendidly regal Reverend Mother. Beautifully shot in black & white, it was directed by Douglas Sirk who’s probably better known for his melodramas like Magnificent Obsession. It’s been raining here since yesterday morning so I may dig out my old video & watch it again this afternoon. It’s perfect weather for watching a rainy movie. Golden Age mystery movie lovers might enjoy Thunder on the Hill.

3 thoughts on “Murder at the flood – Mabel Esther Allan

  1. Simon, I do hope you get to Greyladies one day, I think they're definitely your cup of Earl Grey. Verity, the only other Greyladies I've read is Pink Sugar but I have another half dozen on the tbr shelves. I think they're wonderful.

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