Arrest the Bishop? – Winifred Peck

PeckArrest

There are some few men who possess undoubtedly an aura of evil, visible even to those who profess no psychic powers, and Thomas Ulder was one of them. His personal appearance had not been attractive in old days but five years of sloth and self-indulgence had revealed the ugly contours of his narrow brow and heavy chin till they resembled a pear in shape; his figure had widened on the same lines; his intemperate life had resulted in watery eyes and a twitching face. … it was only when he focused those eyes on you, with the secretive stare of all creeping, slimy things and when his too oily manner stiffened into threats, that the sensitive shuddered as if turning over a stone which conceals maggots; and felt, in Bunyan’s phrase, threatened by an evil, a very evil thing.

The Bishop of Evelake, Dr Broome, is preparing to host a party of young men about to be ordained in his Cathedral. His wife & daughter, Sue, are doing their best to get the draughty, inconvenient Palace ready with the help of the Bishop’s Chaplain, Robert Borderer, known as Bobs. The Bishop will be assisted by Canon Wye & the Chancellor of the diocese who are also staying at the Palace. One of the ordinands, Dick Marlin, is an old friend of the family. Dick served in Military Intelligence during the War & has returned to the Church looking for a life of service. As well as trusted family servants, Mrs Broome is trying to cope with a seriously ill housekeeper & Soames, a very unsatisfactory butler, employed only because so few servants are prepared to live so far from the life & bustle of the town.

The Rev Thomas Ulder is a thorn in the side of the Bishop. A truly wicked man, he has been sidelined by the Church in the past to avoid scandal. When he writes to the Bishop announcing his imminent arrival, Dr Broome is horrified. When the Bishop’s daughter, Judith, spoilt, beautiful & reckless, arrives with a story of being blackmailed by Ulder over a love affair that threatens her divorce, the Bishop despairs. Ulder is an accomplished blackmailer & he has timed his visit to cause the maximum distress to several of the Bishop’s guests as well as his family. When Udall arrives, obviously intoxicated, & then collapses, Mrs Broome puts him to bed & summons the doctor, already in the house to care for the terminally ill housekeeper. Doctor Lee diagnoses acute heart trouble & gives strict instructions that no stimulants & no more morphia are to be given to the patient. Next morning, Ulder is dead, poisoned with an overdose of morphia, a glass of whiskey by his bed.

Arrest the Bishop? is a thoroughly entertaining mystery in the Golden Age tradition. The setting – a Bishop’s Palace in the depths of winter, just before Christmas, in fact – is perfect. I could feel the draughts & the ill-fitting windows & doors with the fires not lit until teatime. Although the book was published in 1949, it’s set in 1920 & has that post-WWI feeling of melancholy & austerity. There are several scenes that combine embarrassment, humour & the awfulness of the food of the period as well as the custom of reading something improving like Pilgrim’s Progress at meals. If nothing else, the reading forestalls awkward conversation. Judith has just asked the local policeman, Tonks, if he’s found another corpse,

With that, Judith flashed into the dining-room, cast her lovely smile on the company, made a face at the pudding, and declined fish. It was left to Bobs to read on while the company watched Mack leave the room to interview Tonks, and return to summon the Chancellor away with him, with a wholly ominous expression. “Moreover, my brother, thou talkest of ease in the grave, but hast thou forgotten the Hell whither murderers go,” concluded Bobs, as the dreadful meal ended at last.

There are more suspects than you can poke a stick at. Ulder had so many visitors in the hours before his death that it’s a wonder they weren’t tripping over each other in the corridors. Ulder is such a repulsive character that we feel no sorrow at his demise. The servants are either pillars of rectitude or decidedly dodgy like Soames. The Chief Constable, Mack, is a Scotsman with a prejudice against the Anglican Church. In a typically country way, the local police are all connected through marriage with the servants at the Palace & gossip spreads quickly. Mack does take Dick Marlin into his confidence & Dick is a shrewd investigator, suspecting Soames from the beginning & equally desperate not to suspect the Bishop who doesn’t help by behaving very suspiciously. There are so many satisfactory motives & so many suspicious goings-on that I found the novel a joy to read.

Dean Street Press have reissued Winifred Peck’s mystery novels as a complement to the Furrowed Middlebrow edition of Bewildering Cares, which I enjoyed so much a few months ago. Martin Edwards has written an informative Introduction to the novels. I very much enjoyed Winifred Peck’s novel, House-Bound, reissued by Persephone & I would love to read more of her work. I’ll be picking up her other mystery, The Warrielaw Jewel, very soon.

12 thoughts on “Arrest the Bishop? – Winifred Peck

  1. “five years of sloth and self-indulgence had revealed the ugly contours of his narrow brow and heavy chin till they resembled a pear in shape;”

    I was put off by the author’s confusion here: if “five years of sloth and self-indulgence” have made his face “resemble… a pear in shape” then “the ugly contours of his narrow brow and heavy chin” must have been concealed, not revealed.

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  2. I wonder…wasn’t Winifred Peck an aunt of Penelope Fitzgerald who was the daughter of a bishop and born in a very draughty Bishop’s palace. Maybe that was her research sorted!

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  3. This would have been the perfect novel to read on the train to London last Sunday when I went to the Barbara Pym Society lecture ‘Anglicanism and Women Novelists: A Special Relationship’ – though it might have made me miss my stop on the way home!

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