The fire was over on their right, away from the Institute’s buildings. It was well alight, with flames leaping high into the air. Standing round it like a votive circle were the students. Their faces stood out in a white ring in the darkness, the dancing flames reflected in them.
Sloan burst from the car and ran over to the fire brigade.
“I want that fire out” he shouted. “Quickly.”
“Blimey,” said a Leading Fireman. “It’s only a bonfire.”
“I know it is” snapped Sloan, “but I want it out before the guy is burnt. This is a police matter, so look sharp. I want that guy in one piece whatever happens.”…
The fire brigade were running their hoses toward the fire, lacing them in and out of the spectators. The boys divided their attention between them and the fire. The latter was of magnificent proportions now, the flames licking their way to the figure lashed to the top.
There was a sigh from the crowd as the first flame lapped round the feet of the guy.
observations: The guy is dressed in a nun’s habit belonging to a nearby convent where a nun has been murdered - which is a pretty unusual plot turn. We first featured this book a while back – nuns, and a hat-tip to Margot Kinberg & her Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog. This time it’s seasonal: the bonfire is at an Agricultural Institute, and the students are known for their tricks, and their particularly dangerous activities around 5th November, Bonfire or Guy Fawkes night in the UK. In fact some of them broke into the convent to get the habit – did they perhaps see something important? And does someone have a special interest in getting the habit destroyed?
There’s a very excellent Irish nun at the convent, who is very anti-police because of her background (her comments and dislike form a running joke), and she refers to the young men of the Agricultural Institute as ‘young limbs of Satan.’ The contrast between the two institutions – male and female, educational and religious – is nicely done.
The investigating policeman, Denis Sloan (he is an unusual fictional policeman in being happily married) discusses with his wife what would make a young woman go into a convent. They are doubtful about the idea of a real vocation, they run through many more possibilities: being lonely, or jilted, needing escape, running away from life, not facing up to things. Rather negative ideas. But overall this is a very positive look at convents, if perhaps not one offering much understanding of a religious calling.
Back in June, we looked at a Celia Fremlin novel, The Trouble-Makers, and there is a great description of a back-garden bonfire & firework party in that – this was very common in the 1960s, though now most people would go to (much safer) communal and municipal firework displays.
The rather fabulous bonfire photo is from the Oregon State University special collection, and would have been hand-coloured. The other picture is from the LSE Library and shows effigies being taken round the streets of London before Guy Fawkes day.
There was a Guy Fawkes entry on the blog back in 2012, with this wonderful picture: