A Most Contagious Game – Catherine Aird

A Most Contagious Game was published in 1967, the second mystery novel published by Catherine Aird. It’s the only one of her novels that doesn’t feature Inspector Sloan of the Calleshire CID although it is set in Calleshire, Aird’s fictional county town. It had never been reprinted until the wonderful Rue Morgue Press reprinted it in 2007. I love Rue Morgue. They’ve brought back into print many authors of the Golden Age & after. I have several of their books by Joanna Cannan (who wrote the Persephone title, Princes in the Land), Dorothy Bowers & Katharine Farrer. The Introductions to their books are also full of fascinating information about the author. Apparently the publishers met Catherine Aird at a mystery convention in Bristol &, in the course of conversation, decided to reprint A Most Contagious Game. They’ve gone on to reprint several of the Sloan mysteries which I remember with affection for their wit & sly humour as well as the English village settings.

The story is a lovely homage to Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time as well as being an absorbing mystery in its own right. Thomas Harding has been forced to retire because of ill health. He & his wife, Dora, move from London to the village of Easterbrook where they buy the local Elizabethan manor house. Thomas is restless, bored & irritated until the day he discovers a secret room in the house, a priest hole. Even more surprising is the skeleton inside the priest hole. The house was built by a family of Elizabethan Catholics so it’s not surprising that the house had a secret room where Catholic priests could be hidden as they travelled around the country saying Mass. The family were forced to sell the house after they were prosecuted as recusants & the Barbary family moved in. The Barbarys owned the Manor for 300 years and, when the skeleton is found to have died about 150 years ago, & to have been murdered, Thomas wants to know who the victim was & who murdered him.

Thomas discovers that the body is that of young Toby Barbary, the 15 year old son of Sir Tobias, who mysteriously disappeared just months before his father’s gallant death at Waterloo in 1815. Toby had been hit on the back of the head but why & who could have put his body in the secret room? While Thomas is busy with his researches into history, Easterbrook is transfixed by another murder. Mary Fenny has been found strangled in her bed & her husband, Alan, has disappeared. The police seem quite sure that Alan is guilty but the villagers have very different ideas. Thomas’s researches into the history of Easterbrook lead him to some clues about Mary Fenny’s murder & he gradually gets to know the villagers & begins to feel less of a stranger.

I loved this book. It’s a wonderful combination of history, mystery & village life. I enjoyed the fact that Thomas’s researches took place in libraries, churchyards & newspaper archives rather than on the internet. The characters are well-rounded, from the wise Vicar, Cyprian Martindale, to Charlie Ford, electrician & undertaker, to Gladys the household help. There’s even a young American, Sir Thaddeus Barbary from Detroit, a nod to Tey’s habit of introducing young Americans into her plots wherever she could. He even talks like Brent Carradine in Daughter of Time. Sir Thaddeus, or Tad as he’s known, arrives in answer to Thomas’s letter to him about when his ancestors left Easterbrook. There’s always been a secret shame in the family & Tad, as the last survivor, is determined to find out why his ancestor left England & why his father told him the family was cursed & could never return.

In the Introduction to this edition, Catherine Aird says that she never wrote another stand-alone novel because her publishers wanted more Sloans. What a pity. I believe that Aird was working on a biography of Josephine Tey at some point. Tey was a famously private woman so I imagine the research would be difficult, to say the least. If it’s ever published, it would be a must-read for fans of both these fine mystery writers.

20 thoughts on “A Most Contagious Game – Catherine Aird

  1. Marg, even though the Introduction mentions Josephine Tey & Aird's interest in her books, even I was surprised when the young American turned up! It's such a good book that I'd have enjoyed it even without the Tey references.

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  2. My mum recently bought an old copy if Henreitta Who? off eBay as she remembered it from her childhood reading. It is now on my shelf, I must get round to reading it.

    Will look out for this one as well.

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  3. Henrietta Who? is a good book, though it always makes me think of How the Grinch Stole Christmas with that title.

    I like Game too. Oddly I just blogged another book influenced by Tey's Daughter of Time, Colin Dexter's The Wench Is Dead.

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  4. Sounds fascinating – I've not heard of Aird, and the other authors you mention are also new to me, with the exception of Josephine Tey, whose Daughter of Time is one of my favourite books. Whether or nor my library stocks any of them is another matter!

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  5. Too many books and so little time:) I have had Aird on my radar for sometime but just haven't gotten to her yet. I love Rue Morgue and have quite a few of their books. Bless them! I will have to stop fooling around and get this book and others now that are mentioned in your comments! I am a book drunkard you know!

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  6. I'm going to look for this for two reasons…one, I've read and liked the Inspector Sloans, two (okay, it'll 3 reasons) my wonderful library has a lot of these Rue Morgue books, and it's a chance to find ones I hadn't read yet (I did find Dorothy Bowers and Joanna Cannan there), and three, I'm currently reading a standalone by one of my favorite series writers and it's not working for me (good, not great). I feel bad about that – these writers should have the chance to branch out and try new things, even if (in the case of my book) they're not quite st the same level. I'm glad this one is!

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  7. I'm very fond of Josephine Tey's 'Daughter of Time' and also of mysteries that have village life, history and historical research at their centre so I'm sure this book would appeal to me. Thanks for the review and the Rue Morgue link:)

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  8. Passing Tramp, I've just popped over to your blog & as well as Wench you've also just posted on Asta's Book, my favourite Barbara Vine. I'm going back to read further…

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  9. Chris, I think several authors have written homages to DOT. If you visit Passing Tramp's excellent blog, you'll find his reviews of Wench is Dead & Asta's Book is also about researching a past mystery.

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  10. I think we're all book drunkards, Peggy Ann! I've just started cataloguing my tbr shelves on Library Thing & if I was honest, I wouldn't need to buy another book until 2020 at least! But, I'm sure I won't hold out until then.

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  11. Audrey, how lucky that your library has some Rue Morgue books. I think they're wonderful. I would never have heard of AMCG without them. It's a shame when standalones don't work but pity the poor author chained to their series character (Conan Doyle & Sherlock Holmes eg) & unable to break free!

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