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.