I enjoy vintage mystery novels quite a bit. I finally got around to picking up Elizabeth Lemarchand’s Death of an Old Girl at the end of 2016. It was first published in 1967 – so I do not know how “vintage” that really is – but it is the first in her relatively famous “Pollard and Toye” series. Tom Pollard and Gregory Toye are two Scotland Yard detectives. The series runs, at least, seventeen novels. It is the first Lemarchand (1906 – 2000) I have read.
The two novels that I read prior to this one were horrible disappointments. One and two stars were earned respectively. From the first page of this novel, I foresaw a good reading experience. There was something immediately vintage and British about this novel and I could easily see the writing was a higher caliber than my previous reads.
The setting gave me some pause – I was concerned that a vintage girl’s private school in England could be a terribly boring setting. However, I also assumed that for her first mystery, Lemarchand was writing about something with which she had a good deal of familiarity. Let me reassure readers that although this is not the most exciting of settings, it is handled very nicely and does not become boring.
It is the end of semester and the school, Meldon, is having their annual get-together wherein the “old girls” are invited for supper and a meeting and, more or less, to gossip and reminisce. Most of the “old girls” enjoyed their time at Meldon and continue to look upon the school fondly. Unfortunately, not all of the “old girls” are as welcoming to change and the future. There is one in particular, Beatrice Baynes, who takes a keen interest in snooping around and keeping herself insinuated in every decision at the school. She even lives in her large mansion just on the road outside of the school’s gates.
Baynes is tolerated because the school is respectful and mannered, but also because Baynes is a heavy monetary contributor. Unfortunately, her financial contributions cannot be accepted without accepting her staunch suggestions and opinions about the running and maintenance of the school. She also is the murder victim.
The cleaning lady finds Baynes’ body stuffed behind the puppet theatre stand in the art studio.Very undignified and also a strange location for Baynes to be found generally.
The Scotland Yard detectives get involved and the story really begins to focus on their investigation. Now, there have been many police procedurals written in the mystery genre. I have to believe, though, that this is one of the more thorough and detailed ones. Lemarchand literally takes every step with us. We make suspect lists and timelines together. We interview suspects and witnesses with nearly excruciating detail. Yes, the story does get a bit boring – unless you are a big fan of investigations and deductions. Now, if you are a fan of mysteries that are actually thrillers – this is not going to interest you at all and you will be angry reading it.
There are also a number of subplots that run alongside the main storyline. Some of these help to develop our red herrings and suspicious persons. The subplots involve boisterous wealthy people, romantic interests, whimsical young teachers, caretakers and groundsmen, and even family connections. When the book blurb on the back cover shares that there are a lot of people who disliked Baynes and wanted her dead – that is not even the half of it.
Some of the supporting characters are likeable, some are detestable. All of them are realistic and convincing. I think this is what really helps keep everyone guessing at who the criminal is right until the very end. There is no character who stands out as more suspicious or obvious than the rest. Also, there are some supporting characters who are surprisingly introduced in such a subtle way that when they begin to take an active role in the investigation, it hardly seems remarkable that they were not there all along.
The two detectives from the Yard are fine. I do think they are the most diligent and detail-oriented detectives that I have ever read about. I do not feel, though, that I have much else to say about that. I hope that in further novels in the series their personalities will develop and I can have more remarks about them.
There is a bit of wit and banter – all good-natured and fun-loving – between the policemen. It isn’t heavy-handed sarcasm and it brought little bits of lightness to an exceedingly detailed investigation. Made the whole thing not so droll and tedious.
You can’t commit murder without taking risks,” replied Inspector Beakbane. “It often holds me back.” pg. 135
Now because the book is such a detailed examination, it makes it seem longer than it is. And that means slower reading. And that means people with short-attention spans who seek thrills and chills will dislike it. I felt this was a nice comfy, intellectual mystery. I also appreciated the motive of the criminal and felt that the crime was tidied up nicely. If Lemarchand was still alive I would gladly tell her that I truly can see the effort that she used writing this novel and that I appreciate her attention to detail.
I will definitely read the next in the series and I am glad that I read this one. I am giving it a four-star rating especially for “apparent author effort.”