The first of the Timothy Herring “architectural mysteries” finds Herring dispatched by PHISBE to the Surrey village of Parsons Purity. There, he is to judge whether or not a 13th century church, from which the lead roof has been stolen under mysterious circumstances, merits the Society for Preservation of Buildings of Historical Interest’s ministrations (the Society’s acrostic acronym requires no “E” except for pronunciation). Herring, an independently-wealthy, well-heeled bon vivant, is Secretary of PHISBE, and a sort of amateur field investigator with a nose for historical buildings. But his trip to Parsons Purity will be full of unexpected twists and turns, and even murder.
Even if you didn’t know that Malcolm Torrie was the 1960s pseudonym of Larkin’s “Great Gladys,” alert readers who know her style would twig the fact fairly quickly. All of the classic Mitchell touches are deployed: a raft of curious and eccentric locals, esoteric subject matter convincingly researched, including mediaeval architecture and the propagation and theft of rock plants and rockeries. At one point, Herring is even made to discuss the works of odd-ball novelist and tangential Inkling Charles Williams: clearly, casual readers and those without a broad world-view could find themselves well out of their depths.
There are mysteries aplenty in the offing, and an array of Mitchell-esque characters to boot. Herring must deal with the local squire, improbably named Sir Ganymede Trogget, the local femme fatale Jane Stretton, the alternately spiky and obsequious vicar Winterbottom, the formidable chatelaine Mrs. Prynne, and the local magistrate Manciple, are just a few of the characters with whom he must deal in order not only to learn the truth of the missing lead from the church roof, but, as the story progresses, who has been responsible for a murder as well.
The story meanders a bit, especially around the courtroom scenes which take up some small part of the third act, but the conclusion is tension-filled and entertaining, as Herring finds himself target, once again, of the murder’s ire. Mitchell/Torrie’s characterisations and settings were as compelling as ever, and the book is also a fascinating evocation of the middle-1960s. There were, for me, overtones of The Avengers stories of this same era (the Emma Peel years, and specifically the black-and-white season, with all of its gorgeous location shooting), almost as though both they and this book exist in the same continuum. If a mad scientist had been thrown into the mix, one might have been forgiven for thinking that in fact, Heavy as Lead was a rejected Avengers script. Whether you see it that way or not, it’s good fun, and as the first of six Herring stories, it promises more enjoyable reading to come.
A note on the edition: I would far have preferred to read a print copy of this book, but as these are unconscionably expensive, I broke down and used the Kindle version instead. Generally speaking, this one was a better scan-job than previous Kindle/Amazon/Thomas & Mercer editions that I’ve tried to read, probably due to its being more modern than works like The Devil at Saxon Wall. It wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t make me want to throw my reader on the fire, either. Five of the six Malcolm Torrie titles are available in Kindle format (the only one missing being the curiously titled Churchyard Salad), and at US$4 each, they’re cheaper than the asking prices of any of the other volumes, which are typically well over US$100. So while I normally would not suggest it, for completists, Mitchell fans, and even readers just looking for a good mid-1960s mystery, I’d suggest giving even the Kindle version of Heavy as Lead a go. It’s good fun. Four stars.