BISMARCK HERRINGS (1971)
1971 Michael Joseph.
He inserted his key, pushed open the heavy door which was set in the Norman stone arch and paused to listen. The old house was silent. It was an eerie silence, but at least nothing creaked, groaned or scuttered. Timothy switched on his torch and entered the great hall. It was empty and was as silent as the rest of the building. He passed through it and entered the chamber which had the oriel window. There was nobody there. Suddenly his nerve was momentarily shattered. The grandfather clock in a far corner whirred noisily, cleared its throat and, while Timothy's heart returned to its accustomed place after the initial shock, it solemnly struck eleven.
"Angels and ministers of grace defend us!" said Timothy, apostrophising it. "I thought you were the ghost of Warlock Hall!" Considerably shaken, he left the clock to its vigil and climbed the spiral stair.
Timothy Herring is the reluctant heir to his great-uncle's gloomy manor house, known by all as Warlock Hall. Though he sees little to recommend it, his wife Alison believes a change in name and some much-needed renovations would make the house habitable, and even quaint. The departed uncle's caretaker, Jabez Gee, warns that ghosts haunt Warlock Hall, but Timothy prefers to see for himself. He soon gets his chance to observe phenomena both worldly and strange: a scream coming from an empty minstrel's gallery and a new box of matches placed inside a locked bedroom startle and unsettle him. Added to this, the long-dormant house seems to be of particular interest to Gee and his boating friends.
While Timothy deals with this flurry of house activity, Alison is called up by her past employer, headstrong schoolmistress Sabrina Pomfret-Brown, to help save a troubled staging of Macbeth. The production is dealt another blow when the temperamental lead actor -- an unreliable bloke named Colquhoun -- abruptly quits. He is to make an unexpected later appearance on board a river cruiser.
Timothy finds time to call upon the matron for a group of deteriorating almshouses known as Lady Matilda's Rest. Acting officially on behalf of his historical building preservation society, Timothy finds he cannot interfere with the local council's plans to tear down the houses. As everyone works to resettle the elderly ladies who live there, one woman dies when a chimney collapses and topples onto her, while a second is stabbed inside a movie theater. Sensing dark deeds, Timothy and Alison work to fit the pieces together and arrive at a murderer and motive.
Not nearly as ponderous as the Torrie title Shades of Darkness preceding it, Bismarck Herrings is also, by Gladys Mitchell standards, unexceptional. The elements are there -- two murders, criminal activity afoot, hints of the supernatural -- but the handling is rote and uninspired. This is not a bad book, as its plot makes sense and its story is occasionally engaging, but I wish it had been infused with a little more life, if only to let this reader feel more acutely the ending of a short series. Its inconsequentiality is hard to shake; Chapter 10 is even titled "Desultory Conversation"...
The final exchanges in this book hint at the trajectory upon which Mitchell/Torrie might have sent the characters. Timothy and Alison cap their banter with talk of children, specifically male children (and Miss Pomfret-Brown's girls' school has turned co-ed in this installment, paving the way). It is easy to imagine subsequent Malcolm Torrie titles which would have used rapidly growing Herring youth, able to kickstart their own mystery plots the way secretary Laura's Hamish and Eiladh Gavin sometimes do in the Dame Beatrice books.
The Bismarck of the title refers to not one, but two supporting characters here: a mysterious woman calling herself Grete Bismarck emerges, and Headmistress Pomfret-Brown's much-spoiled dachshund also sports the moniker.