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.
Winifred Peck, sister of Golden Age luminary Ronald Knox, wrote 25 books over a 40-year career, two of which were mysteries. She is the latest author to be revived by Dean Street Press, who were kind enough to send me The Warrielaw Jewel and this title. I couldn’t resist a name like Arrest the Bishop? and so I opened this first.
The setting is the Bishop’s Palace at Evelake in the early 1920s. The Palace is a sprawling building with plenty of room for mischief, presided over by the current Bishop and his second wife, who are well-meaning but unworldly types. The Palace is currently hosting some young men about to enter the Church. Among them is Dick, our hero, fresh from a job in military intelligence in the trenches of WWI, and now struggling to let go of his past and devote himself to a life in the priesthood. Other residents include two girls. Sue is virginal and kind, an ideal priest’s wife. Judith is a hotter proposition, charmingly amoral, with an estranged husband and a baby on the way by another man.
The Palace has a one-man servant problem in the form of Soames, an oily and incompetent butler who was the best that could be got after the War. And there is a viper in the nest – a truly horrible priest named Ulder, with a history of blackmail which the Church has covered up rather than exposed. Ulder has tired of the quiet parish into which he has been shuffled to keep him out of trouble, and decided he wants to emigrate to America. Problem is, he needs some funds, and he knows plenty of dangerous secrets. When he crops up at the Palace the reader knows he hasn’t long for this world…
The setting is interesting and provides plenty of opportunities for musings on the job of the priesthood, the differences between the post-war generation and their elders, and of course good and evil. None of which is heavy handed or intrusive – it’s light touch all the way. There is a sceptical outsider in the form of Mack, the local Chief Constable, a Scottish anticlerical who would love to get his hands on a Bishop.
‘Of all the obstructionist, high and dry Tory ritualist holes, this is the limit!’
Mack co-opts Dick as his secretary, recognising the value of his experience in intelligence (especially as the local police force is short-handed due to the flu epidemic), and secretly hoping to dissuade him from taking holy orders.
‘I don’t call perpetual half-hours in that God box a job.’
There are many suspects (Ulder was an active blackmailer), and Dick and Sue soon start working in parallel to Mack, who sets himself firmly on the road to arresting himself a Bishop.
The mystery is okay, although Peck commits the dreadful crime of flagging up a clue so strongly that it may as well have an actual flag on it. But the explanation is character driven and psychologically sound.
All told, quite a feel-good standalone mystery which benefits from an interesting background laid out by a writer who knew that world well.
Arrest the Bishop?
First published in the UK by Faber & Faber, 1949
Published by Dean Street Press, 2016
225 pages in print
Furrowed Middlebrow: The bishop’s palace itself proves a wonderfully evocative setting, a monstrosity from which multiple wings and new additions now branch off, resulting in hallways veering in all directions (and allowing, should one so desire, for easy and unexpected entries and exits). The palace itself is intriguing but add in that it’s built next to the dramatic ruins of a medieval abbey, and the eerie stage is set.
Noah’s Archive: I had never heard of Winifred Peck, I’d never heard of this volume, and I’ve been ploughing through a lot of old rubbish lately. My friends, I’m happy to say that this one is a winner.