The special CiB meme ‘Xmas scenes from books, accompanied by carefully chosen pictures’ is back!
Every year I do a series of Xmas entries on the blog, helped and encouraged by suggestions and recommendations from my lovely readers. If you use Pinterest you can see some of the beautiful seasonal pictures on this page, and you can find (endless!) more Xmas books via the labels at the bottom of the page. You’d think I’d be running out of Xmas books and scenes by now, but far from it – I have to begin this feature earlier in December each year. More ideas still welcome in the comments. (If it’s a particularly good choice I will ditch one of the ones I have ready and give you credit…)
Arrest the Bishop? by Winifred Peckpublished 1949
set in 1920
At the head of the table, the Bishop’s pallid face, finely moulded and set in those tragic St Joseph lines, seemed carved in marble, and lifeless as his predecessors on the Cathedral tombs.
Staples, the other candidate for the priesthood besides Dick, and the six who would on Sunday discard their shabby tweed coats or worn uniforms for very precise new clerical clothes, were all of them, chubby or lean, keen or vacuous, like mere pictures on a wall. Even Mrs Broome seemed to lose her warm jovial personality as she presided, in the long black satin gown after the fashion of statelier days: Sue in a wispy dress of pale grey seemed a shadow. Only Judith in a long yellow tea-gown, swinging back a priceless ermine cape and perfect pearls a little impatiently, was radiantly awake and alive.
commentary: Arrest the Bishop has all the trappings of a great Christmas mystery. The author has a track record in fiction – including the splendid non-crime story Bewildering Cares, featured earlier this year on the blog. A very funny writer. A carefully-imagined setting in a large house full of potential suspects – even better, it is a Bishop’s Palace. Set 30 years before it was written. Snow all over, stopping people moving around as much as they would like, and home to footprints. No-one can move outside without others knowing. The victim isn’t much missed, and was such a bad lot that everyone has a motive for murder.
HOWEVER, we are told clearly that it is Christmas, and December is mentioned. And that is it: Christmas doesn’t feature in the plot at all, the author seems to forget the opportunities that Christmas should be presenting. I don’t think there’s even any Christmas or pre-Christmas services amongst all the church-y goings-on. Disappointing, and a missed opportunity.
But still a good fun read, and appropriate for the time of year: the ideal book for a cold afternoon. Peck is very funny, as I said above: I liked the man reading out to the assembled worthies who has to quickly skip a bit of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress because it is too rude. And the horrible Chief Constable, Major Mack, who ‘felt it most improbable that a layman and a lawyer could be so guilty of so sordid a crime’ – so it must be a clergyman, and he is very suspicious of their going off to the chapel to pray.
Peck in general is quite disrespectful of the clergy, and one of the nicest characters, the ditsy Judith, is plainly and unashamedly immoral: the book features the strange divorce laws of the era, which we also saw in the historical strand of Sarra Manning’s House of Secrets recently, and further back in real time in Evelyn Waugh and Dorothy L Sayers. (And will feature again, oddly enough, in another Christmas entry – the weird rules were particularly difficult for divided couples at Xmas…)
Judith makes much of her luggage being searched - ‘all my frillies’ (a welcome nod to the regular blog feature Dress Down Sunday, which has been suspended for the duration of the festive season) – and likes teasing and tormenting the searchers. So that later when discussing clothes she can say ‘most luckily I’ve got a dream of a grey georgette I’ve never worn – you remember it, Major Mack?’ I have no higher compliment than this: Judith could easily fit into Georgette Heyer’s Envious Casca, to my mind the best and funniest Xmas mystery ever. There are also shades of the Angela Thirkell books so enjoyed here on the blog.
I’m delighted to say that there is a clergyman with Doubts, a matter that always intrigues me in old novels – as for example in Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, discussed here.
I didn’t have the slightest difficulty in solving the crime: because of detection work on my part, but also involving psychic intuition, for a reason I cannot reveal without spoilering. But that didn’t for one moment reduce my pleasure in the book.
The clothes (probably rather grand for the country clergy) are from 1919/20.