A HEARSE ON MAY-DAY (1972)
1972 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1973 Thriller Book Club; 2011 Rue Morgue Press; 2014 Vintage Press.
"Let's hope that, between the lot of us, we can find the chap or chaps who did for the old gov'nor. I don't know that anybody is all that upset to see the back of him--he was too much of a drunkard for anybody to bother overmuch about whether he was with us or not, you know--but fair's fair. I mean, we may owe God a death, but a death with neither rhyme, reason, accident or illness to account for it, is a bit much, don't you think?"
Fenella Lestrange is motoring from her great-aunt Beatrice's house in Wandles Parva to her cousins' manor in Douston, and she is running late. Looking for a place to eat, Fenella stops at the village of Seven Wells and tries her luck at the local inn, called the More to Come. There she learns that the inn was built upon the foundations of an ancient church, and that the village is busy with secret preparations for tonight's Mayering Eve ceremonies. Unable to get more information about this apparently unique pagan holiday (the date being April 30th), Fenella finishes her dinner and returns to her car only to find that the vehicle, working fine moments ago, now won't start.
Frustrated by the delay, she has the car towed to the only garage around, then secures a room for the night at the More to Come. Villagers and the staff at the inn continue to allude to the strange activities that will happen soon. After being told by the landlord, Mr. Shurrock, to bolt her bedroom door for the night, Mrs. Shurrock adds, "whatever happens, don't you open that door to nobody." Fenella's curiosity soon overtakes the unease she feels, and she slips out of her room to do some investigating. She first encounters the bizarre scene of costumed villagers dressed as the signs of the Zodiac, reading cards at the inn. Scorpio recognizes Fenella as an intruder, and the group turns hostile. Escaping the group, Fenella also becomes spectator to a strange ritual taking place within the crypt of the old church. Inside, a sacrificial skeleton is sprinkled with rooster's blood while the gatherers chant a pagan fertility poem. The anointed bones are then carried to their resting place in a hillside grave.
Dame Beatrice is quite interested in Fenella's adventures, for the psychiatrist is looking into the murder of the squire of Seven Wells, Sir Bathy Bitton-Bittadon. The man was found with a knife in his back, and it appears the murderer then threw Sir Bathy over a wall that surrounds his land. When Fenella makes a later visit to the More to Come, she is surprised to find that the landlord and staff have been replaced by a group of strangers. Enquiries on the Shurrocks' sudden absence produce sinister warnings from the villagers. And another unpleasant discovery is in store: within the crypt beneath the inn, Fenella comes across five freshly laid out human skeletons.
This is a solid later entry in the series; the plot is intriguing and, in a couple of places, quite puzzling. Grand-niece Fenella Lestrange proves a likeable protagonist, though her personality is interchangeable with that of other relations who populate Miss Mitchell's later books: Fenella in this story, Hermione Lestrange in The Death-Cap Dancers and Eiladh Gavin (Dame Beatrice's god-daughter) in Wraiths and Changelings are all cut from the same cloth. There's often a love interest (with marriage in sight) and the young lady gets firmly entrenched in a murder mystery before Dame Beatrice comes to the rescue.
A Hearse on May-Day is steeped in British folklore, and the secret midnight rituals in which the whole town apparently participates carry a dark fascination. Representations of pagan fertility rites, the Green Man, Zodiac symbols, and water and tree worship can be found here, most of it based on legend and lore, some of it springing from Miss Mitchell's wonderful imagination. For a story revolving around such strange happenings, the plotting (I'm happy to report) is clear and linear. Everything is resolved -- or at least attributable -- by the tale's conclusion, and Dame B. engages in an entertaining tete-a-tete with Sir Bathy's killer near the end. The old lady is at her most benign here, and there's not a trace of her shrieking, lively former self from the days before the bestowment of the royal title. But even with a subdued Dame Beatrice, Gladys Mitchell offers such unique stories with such bizarre elements that the straightforward telling merely emphasizes the strange world in which Fenella finds herself. Beware on Mayering Eve indeed.