Written by Gwen Parrott — There is a thriving interest in crime fiction translated from Swedish, Danish, Nowegian and Icelandic too. From the French and Japanese, we say ‘more please.’ But what about from British languages like Welsh and Gaelic? After all, with its storytelling traditions Celtic culture is full of legend, romance and wonderful poetry. So it’s a nice surprise to discover that Gwen Parrott’s Dead White, originally written in Welsh, has arrived in English on Kindle thanks to the indie publisher Pageturners.
This charming mystery isn’t far off Agatha Christie in its vibe, but ultimately you will find things a shade darker and perhaps a touch more unhinged in the isolated village of Nant yr Eithin in Pembrokeshire. But we do have the essential elements of a Golden Age mystery – it’s set within a confined area, the culprit has to be someone from the village, everyone lives to an old-fashioned set of mores or expectations, and there’s an amateur sleuth about.
The year is 1947, and after helping save lives during the German bombing of the port city of Swansea, Della Arthur arrives in Nant yr Eithin to become the school mistress. Unfortunately, she arrives during a snowstorm and trying to battle her way to the school’s adjacent cottage, she’s forced to shelter at a farmhouse. Nobody answers her knock but the weather’s worsening so she breaks in to avoid freezing. After stoking the fire and making some tea she ventures upstairs where she finds an old man and woman dead in their bed. There’s a little blood coming from their nostrils.
After the snow’s stopped, she clambers out the next morning and Norman, a young man tending his chickens helps her into the village where she meets the church minister Huw Richards. He’s a cold and pedantic fellow, and insists on keep the bodies a secret. Leonard and Glenys weren’t liked by their neighbours and gradually we discover that several people might have had reasons to kill them.
Della settles into her teaching position, and Richards makes sure Leonard and Glenys are buried with little fuss, smoothing things over with local farmer Eirug Rees, village bobby Aneurin, and the coroner who is also the area’s brandy-addled doctor. Meanwhile, Della has the headache of Lena arriving to stay at her cottage. Claiming to be the sister of the previous teacher, who was removed because of his drinking, she’s in the village looking for something…
Throughout the story we learn a little more about each character and without ever revealing all that much about them, it’s clear Parrott has a skill for developing multi-dimensional characters. From the creepy horse-obsessed twins through to the two rival schoolboys who are later pivotal to the plot, there’s more to her cast than appears on the page.
Her descriptive writing is strong too. Early on, she does focus a little too much on room-by-room layouts and where the furniture is, but later leaves these details in her wake as the plotting takes a more central focus. Though the book was originally written in Welsh, the author translated it herself and her perfect grasp of the cadence of the Welsh accent, word order and diction is reflected in the dialogue. If you’ve met the people out west of Swansea and heard them speak, you’ll know what I mean.
More interested in why Leonard and Glenys died than what Lena’s looking for in Nant y Eithin, Della joins forces with an Italian former POW called Enzo. He’s been labouring on a farm since the end of the war and, well, could there be the spark of romance between him and Della, whose love life flat-lined when her fiancée was killed overseas?
The book’s conclusion tries a little too hard, perhaps, but if you enjoy a good old mystery with a set of genuine characters and a touch of Celtic charm, Dead White is a dead cert.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars