“Mrs. Winters,” said Father Bredder as soon as he had reached his small study, “Mrs. Winters.” She came to the door wearing a small hat of black straw and a white but somehow disreputable-looking apron over her plain gray dress. Mrs. Winters always gave the impression that she had just come in and had only had time to put on an apron but not time to remove her hat.
[Tino, a young man of the neighbourhood]
But he couldn’t drive the Merc because his license had been taken away for six months. And he was also on probation because of a beef involving the holdup of a liquor store. So Tino had to ride the bus to the convent, which hurt his pride. He salved it in other ways; however. He wore a $140 suit of Italian silk, pearl gray in color, and had a deep burgundy pocket handkerchief in the breast pocket. He had a deep burgundy tie, two-tone shoes (black and white), and a dark-blue fedora, and he was sure that any convent girls who caught sight of him would swoon right away.
commentary: I can highly recommend the Clerical Detectives website: it is terrifyingly comprehensive. The only downside is that you visit it to make a quick check on a fact, a check that will take a maximum of two minutes, and then you end up staying at least half an hour and coming away with a list of books you need to read.
I’m going to quote from the site on the otherwise inexplicable Fr Bredder, the priest sleuth in this series. Holton was a prolific writer in many genres, and apparently said:
I'm not fond of bashing people around or shooting them, and casual sex I disagree with. On the other hand I have no real talent for the threads of detail which form the smooth and satisfactory web of the detective story as written by women writers. It occurred to me then that I had to devise a nonfussy and nonviolent sort of detective - a detective with an entirely different personality and motivation from the usual private eye; although on reflection few of them are usual. This decided me that if I made my detective a priest I could give my stories a background and quality others lacked - a spiritual quality.Quite an interesting take on the different kinds of crime story I thought.
And this is a very strange crime story.
It starts with Fr Bredder, a priest in LA, hoping to soften up the Reverend Mother of the next-door convent by giving her a present of a giant melon. Only it turns out that what is in the bag he hands over is the head of a murdered woman. An excellent set-up, I think we can all agree.
The book then follows the attempts to find out who the victim is, and there are fascinating conclusions to be drawn from the head. A forensic expert says:
That, woman, unless I miss my guess, is one of a submerged American type. By that I mean there are thousands like her all through this country, especially in the big cities. They drift from place to place, and if you will forgive my saying so, from bedroom to bedroom. They mix up with a lot of men and they have a host of acquaintances but no friends.
He has concluded that she doesn’t often wear a hat, doesn’t wash her hair enough, wears heavy silver earrings, and (based on her teeth) probably has had some children. All this has built up his picture of her – and in one sense it sounds terribly sexist and quite bleak and shocking. But on the other hand it is proper detection, and it surely represents the way life was in 1959.
[The ‘tour de force forensic examination based on a body part’ moment turned up in a couldn’t-be-more different Catherine Aird book on the blog recently, by chance: that time it was a hand.]
There is then some sleuthing, including the priest heading off to Yuma Arizona (there was dust from the area in the dead woman’s hair) and also some suspicion falling on him - Tino above is trying to warn Fr Bredder, and help him to escape if necessary.
Fr Bredder links up with Lieutenant Minardi (who has a daughter, Barbara, at the convent school) and between them they solve the crime. It is a very short book, and sometimes feels as though two different books - clerical crime, police grit - have been combined, and the a middle section missed out, though I am not complaining: short is good. The crime is suddenly solved: it is rather noir-ish and involves one of those crime schemes which seem vanishingly, unnecessarily complex and very unlikely – see also such disparate books as Dorothy L Sayers Murder Must Advertise and Erle Stanley Gardner’s The Knife Slipped.
But the book stuck in my mind, it had a great atmosphere, some very varied scenes, and some very nice touches. One character says to Fr Bredder:
“It will be quite a comfort to be dead; then the whole struggle will be over. You can’t be guilty of sin after death, can you, Father?”
“No,” said the priest. “After death sin is impossible.”
“Do you know,” said Mrs. Cleaton, “that is the most comforting thing I know of about religion.”And Lt Minardi makes an excellent point about the clue of the candle…
“What I’m getting at,” said Minardi, “is that every man views the world and the world’s events in terms of his own interests and you, seeing a candle lighted to John the Baptist, automatically conclude that this is related to finding the head in your church.”Apparently there are 11 books in the series, and I will certainly read more.
I have my friend John Norris from Pretty Sinister Books to blame for this one – he looked at a later book in the series for the Tuesday Night Club’s travel and murder meme, and I was intrigued enough to follow up and start from the beginning.
I loved the description of the housekeeper – later he says ‘Mrs. Winters always gave the impression of having just arrived for her duties or being just prepared to depart from them’: it was so very familiar to me from my youth. I have seen many women – from priests’ housekeepers to my own grandmothers – in a hat and an apron simultaneously. I think it was that they spent some time arranging their hat, fixing it in place, so it might as well stay there.
It was very hard to find the picture I had in my mind – I think because any such lady would whisk her apron off if she were about to be photographed. But these photos gives the right impression – top one from the National Library of Australia, while second hat lady is part of a WW2 sewing party, picture from the Imperial War Museum.
The picture of a young man is of the blameless and totally un-criminal bandleader Cab Calloway, part of the Gottlieb collection at the Library of Congress.
Picture of a lady from Ladies Home Journal – I gave her a bit more glamour than really described, because I felt sorry for the character.