Written by Charlie Garratt — Autumn, 1938. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who is the MP for Edgebaston in Birmingham, has just returned from Munich clutching a piece of paper which, he proclaims, promises peace in our time. Meanwhile, in another part of Birmingham, Detective Inspector James Given watches, ashen faced, as a man is executed. The wretch at the end of the hangman’s rope was brought to justice by Given for his part in a brutal murder. The victim was killed simply because he was Jewish. Given returns to his Warwickshire police station a sadder – if not a wiser – man. He is almost immediately despatched by his superintendent to tidy up a rather messy murder investigation in a leafy village nearby.
The mellow bricks and stones of Grovestock House have witnessed a triple death. It seems that Lady Isabelle Barleigh has murdered her wheelchair-bound son, Tom, before turning the shotgun on herself. With the servants paralysed with terror, Tom’s fiancée Jenny Bamford has taken his revolver and shot herself in the head. With the terrible events neatly written off as a murder and a double suicide, Given is supposed to tidy up a few loose ends and rubber stamp the conclusions of the local constable, John Sawyer. Before long, Given smells a rat. Is it just a bizarre coincidence that his former sweetheart is among the domestic staff at Grovestock? Why has her brother – a petty criminal – disappeared?
There are back-stories in the narrative which need mentioning. James Given is not your average country copper. His first name is actually Jacob, and he is from a Jewish family that fled Russia to escape the post-Tsarist pogroms. With his father a successful tailor in Birmingham, and his uncle trying hard to avoid the attentions of the Nazis in Bremen, James/Jacob is acutely aware of his heritage at a time when rising anti-semitism was not confined to Hitler’s Germany. Add to that the fact that he is a recovered alcoholic and inveterate gambler, with another former girlfriend raped and murdered by Sicilian hoodlums, and you have a young man with a very complex background.
Garratt intersperses his clues with red herrings, and when the villain is finally unmasked it is not the greatest surprise, but the plot is tightly woven, and it plays out well. It is a salutary fact – often ignored in critiques of pre-1960s crime fiction – that murderers almost always paid for their crime with the ultimate penalty, the hangman’s drop. This certainly adds a frisson to the plot, as we must hope that the police do actually find the real villain.
This is as decent a pastiche of a Golden Age mystery as you are likely to read. It is not quite a locked room mystery, but all the other elements are there – the country house with butler, the village pub, the tittle-tattling rustics, the legacy of World War I, and that warm, indefinable something which makes us hanker after days long gone by. Declaring a personal interest, as someone who grew up in mid Warwickshire, I can vouch for the authentic and beautifully written settings. The Jewish question certainly adds an edge to the proceedings, and reminds us that anti-semitism has a long and inglorious history. The necessity of including the episodes with the Sicilian thugs seems less convincing and proves more of a distraction.
The title? Well, Warwickshire is Shakespeare’s county so it was no surprise to find that the lines come from The Merchant of Venice: “The shadow’d livery of the burnish’d sun,
To whom I am a neighbor and near bred.”
Grey Cells Press
CFL Rating: 4 Stars