The second of Gladys Mitchell’s Timothy Herring mysteries once again dips into the worlds of architectural restoration and murder, this time set against a backdrop of the ruined Welsh castle of Nanradoc, in the vicinity of the venerable Snowdon itself.
When PHISBE receives a plea from a distrait school teacher, Marion Jones, pleading with them to help her restore a ruined castle which she will inherit, Timothy Herring decides to investigate on his own. He finds not only the ruined castle, but a dilapidated house attached to the property, which was the childhood home of the artist Pembroke Jones (Marion’s cousin) and his sister, Olwen. The house, however, seems to be inhabited by two curious strangers, one of whom claims to be Olwen Jones, and the other calling himself Father Ignatius (and dressed completely in monastic robes) but neither of whom appear to be what they represent themselves to be. This bizarre encounter sets Herring on a course to discover the truth of the twisted relationships in the Jones family.
Timothy Herring next visits Marion Jones in London, and finds her living in near-squalour in a vile walk-up in Earls Court, and vows to extricate her from the house, with the twin under-tens and two year-old of whom she is improbably the ward. Herring over-reaches himself somewhat by installing the Jones ménage on the unoccupied third floor of PHISBE’s own headquarters, thus bringing about a conflict with the on-site housekeepers, Mr. and Mrs. Dewes. Further surprises emerge when mysterious noises plague the PHISBE building, and the mysteriously robed Father Ignatius appears, searching, it seems, for something… but what?
Herring resolves to visit Marion’s cousin, the artist Pembroke Jones, and his wife, the sculptor Leonie Bing, in their house near Chester, in an attempt to learn more. Herring hopes to unpick the tangled tapestry that seems to surround Nanradoc. But in Chester, as everywhere, he seems to find only more questions than answers. Hints of foul-play and witchcraft abound. What on earth is going on? And where is the real Olwen Jones?
There’s a lot to like in <i>Late and Cold</i>, as there was in Mitchell’s previous Malcolm Torrie outing, <i>Heavy as Lead</i>. The evocation of place and character are rich and beautiful as ever, and if the reader doesn’t know the west of England into Wales, a good gazetteer or atlas, or even a decent O.S. or other map will serve them well. There are also a number of literary references which should not be obscure to the alert and reasonably well-heeled reader; among them, a reference to P.G. Wodehouse is always welcome, and joins the ranks of countless other Wodehouse references in Mitchell’s work. While we are on the subject of hunting down references, I should record that in this particular instance, I found that the X-ray function provided by the Amazon Kindle for iPad application was surprisingly useful. Regular readers of my reviews will be aware that I’m not a huge admirer of ebooks generally, but I have to say that, in fairness, I was able to find some bits of information (particularly when Miss Mitchell decides to quote authors or histories) more easily directly from the application than had I been left to search the rest of my library. The ease doesn’t make up for the disorienting experience of trying to measure one’s progress through an ebook (I was surprised to suddenly find myself at “90%” with the story mostly unresolved), but it makes for the more facile writing of reviews.
As far as characters go, Timothy Herring is once again a suave, worldly, yet “surprisingly eager to involve himself and his money” sort of figure. He appears to be the sort of well-off man whose whims take him where they may, and who generally sleeps well, being, as the author puts it, “in good health and with no money worries.” Tom Parsons and his wife Lydia are useful friends and foils, the sort that in my experience appear far more often in fiction than in real life, where genuinely useful friends can be a bit thin on the ground. On the other hand, Marion Jones, as a whole, is an unsympathetic character, and one can’t help feeling that even Miss Mitchell didn’t particularly care for her. Although Herring takes pity on her, and practically moves heaven and earth to try to help her, Miss Jones persists in being alternately prideful, stubborn, irrational, and clinging: by the end, she is even described as bitter, although Herring gave her no reason to expect anything from him other than his interest in fairness and justice. Miss Jones has clearly taken on responsibilities beyond her resources, and the reader is left at the end of the book hoping that she takes a fresh opportunity to turn her life completely around, but harbouring a nagging suspicion that she will not. By contrast, most amusing, and a characteristic Mitchell touch once more, were the Birds, a couple of what turn out to be petty criminals who are finally in well over their heads.
Several threads are left unresolved at the end of the book. The missing deeds to Narandoc are not recovered in the narrative, although Pembroke Jones is stated by the end of the book to be the ‘owner’ once more. A further hint, that the chapel at Nanradoc has been converted to a temple for devil worshippers, is made more than once, but never followed through, for better or worse. Also, it is never made explicitly clear one way or another whether the twins Bryn and Bron are (or are not) Marion Jones’s children: although she would have had to have been around sixteen at the time of their birth, such things are not unknown, nor were they in 1960s Britain. The timeline of the murder itself is left somewhat vague, as are its exact circumstances. And the revelation of a poltergeist haunting the PHISBE building, although a charming Mitchell-esque touch, is, irritatingly to most rationalists, one which is left unattributed to natural agency at the book’s end. Honestly, I would personally have preferred the cliché of a sleep-walker to the suggestion that a super-natural spirit moved pokers about.
Interestingly, as far as the only murder which does take place goes, Herring and the other characters take an almost-Mrs. Bradley-esque approach to the guilt of murderer, deciding that as long as the police aren’t bringing a case against anyone, neither will they. This decision, which suggests that the murderer might make greater contributions to society if left free, makes sense within the internal logic of the book, but is nevertheless odd.
Despite these minor failings, <i>Late and Cold</i> is a creditable second entry into the Timothy Herring series, full of the sort of detail at which Gladys Mitchell excelled, no matter whose name she put on the book’s cover. One almost gets the sense that Herring was Mitchell’s answer, in non-aristo form, to Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey. Regardless, although it’s not quite as good as <i>Heavy as Lead</i>, if you enjoyed the first book, this one likely won’t diminish your appreciation. If you can lay your hands on the print original, or don’t mind a Kindle version (it’s only available for the Kindle at this point, I’m afraid), Timothy Herring’s activities are once again worth your time. 3.5-4/5 stars.