Last week I reviewed The Glass-Sided Ants’ Nest, Peter Dickinson’s CWA 1968 gold dagger winning debut, and a lovely book. With 1969’s A Pride of Heroes, Dickinson won the dagger again, and even better for his career, made himself eligible for the #1969book challenge.
It would be hard to top the setting for The Glass-Sided Ant’s Nest, but Dickinson had a good go. This time, Jimmy Pibble, the policeman they give the odd cases, has been sent to another strange house. This time it’s Herryings*, an archetypal English stately home preserved in aspic for the benefit of tourists.
The owners are the Claverings – one General, one Admiral – bona fide war heroes who wrested a very slim victory from the jaws of defeat at the beginning of WWII. They have created a kind of English-heritage Disneyland at Herryings, with actors portraying the servants (reminiscent of Mr Campion’s Farthing, but on a larger scale). Additional interest is provided by a pride of lions, one of them a man-eater, prowling the grounds.
Admiral Clavering’s ex-Midshipman, Deakin, has committed suicide by hanging, and the Claverings insist on a Scotland Yard man investigating in case the press assume they have influenced the local police to keep it quiet.
Pibble suspects there is more to it, and scents that everyone at Herryings is colluding to support the suicide theory, but doesn’t think he is important enough to rock the boat. It feels like he has been selected as the detective most likely to toe the line.
OK, he was going quietly. But let them stretch his conscience one notch further, and the lion would feel the talons of this vulture, weak, blunt, bourgeois talons though they were.
Then his conscience is stretched to snapping point, and he ends up investigating. In the course of a very busy day, he encounters an olde-worlde shopkeeper, an alcoholic butler, a hustling businessman, an American millionaire photography nut, and of course Bonzo the lion. It’s an older and wiser Pibble who wraps things up just in time for the press to arrive.
And how 1969ish is it? It seems very much of its time to me (Longleat Safari Park was opened at a stately home in the 60s) but there’s one throwaway line which I thought was very illuminating
In that mood she could have wished gaiety on a convocation of decimal coinists.
In ’69 the UK was midway through decimalisation, a move which although extremely sensible was rather foisted upon the general public. I love the thought of joyless gatherings of grey-faced decimalisers.
* Or Herryngs, both versions appear in my edition.
A Pride of Heroes
First published by Hodder & Stoughton Ltd (as The Old English Peep Show) in 1969
This edition Mysterious Press (UK) (Arrow), 1988
Final destination: A keeper
Bitter Tea and Mystery: Dickinson calls his book “a baroque spoof.” The San Francisco Chronicle said it was “a bit crazy, harrowingly suspenseful, surprising.” And it is all of that. The thing that surprised me was that with all the elements of humor and caricature, the later part of the book still has definite thriller elements.