CHURCHYARD SALAD (1969)
1969 Michael Joseph.
Ahead of them a door slammed and there was silence. Parsons, now leading the way, was shining the torch so that the light played on the grim blackness of the cellar without disclosing anything but the darkness ahead. This being so, and knowing that he and Timothy had cleared that particular passageway before they had stopped work, he did not realise that there was an obstacle in his path until he stubbed his toe on it. He yelped with the sudden pain in his slippered foot, but he did not fall. He shone the torch downwards to find out what the obstacle was.
"Well, I'll be..." he began.
"No, don't say it. Hallowed ground," said Timothy, cutting him short, and they both gazed, fascinated, at the object on the cellar floor. It was a stone coffin.
While out for a country drive, Timothy Herring and wife Alison spot a rather peculiar pub named The Strike On All Anvils. Following a hunch, Timothy investigates and discovers that the irregular building was actually built from the base of a saxon church. Acting as a representative of his society for the preservation of historical structures, Herring meets with the landowner, the current Lord Chilmarkstone, a young man new to his title and his inheritance. An agreement is reached, and under the supervision of Timothy, workers start uncovering the rest of the ancient church's foundations.
Before long, strange events begin occuring on the former grounds of Saint Michael and All Angels: unexplained footsteps and movements are heard in the ex-pub, a thatched roof catches fire, religious relics disappear from Markstone Manor, and stone coffins shift their positions in the dead of night. Opening the restless coffins, Timothy finds bunches of tied vegetables inside each one; as these items are in groups of four, he considers the possibility of witchcraft. A look into Chilmarkstone history uncovers a disreputable accountant ready to lay claim to the Markstone grounds and a beautiful young nun who would have inherited had the estate not been entailed to male descendants. The restoration work ceases over the winter months, and a check of the churchyard the following spring reveals a gruesome addition to one of the stone coffins: the body of the short-lived Lord Chilmarkstone lies therein, his bludgeoned head disallowing any attempt to rest in peace.
One of the least ominous of all mystery titles (the phrase is borrowed from a sentiment of Sir Thomas Browne), Churchyard Salad nevertheless contains a story with some memorably menacing--if not downright macabre--touches. Alison Pallis, the schoolteacher who Timothy Herring rescues from a murder attempt in the previous Malcolm Torrie book, Your Secret Friend, has become Herring's wife, and Gladys Mitchell's attempts at a series with sex appeal take both the high road (the couple's constant exchanging of love verse, notably that of Shakespeare and Donne) and relative low (Timothy: "Darling, what was your last bed-book?" Alison: "I don't read in bed. You see to that!"). It is clear, while not becoming Harlequin-romance explicit, that Tim Herring is very much a man's man, in love--as well as in physically strenuous lust--with his new wife. The Torrie books each contain an underpinning of sexual dash, with hero Herring coming to the aid of an attractive woman in historic building-related distress. While in most other respects--e.g., prose, plotting, even chapter names--these titles are quite similar to Gladys Mitchell's Dame Beatrice books from the same decade, there are two exceptions of content on display: the Torrie books offer rigorous, sometimes near-fanatical accounts of architectural description, and they possess that aforementioned buttoned-down sex appeal.
But what of Churchyard Salad's plot? Whither the menace? There are several novel touches here, not the least of which involves the vegetable-loaded stone coffins. Although the murderer's identity once again borders on the arbitrary--or, at the very least, on the under-represented--the motive for Lord Chilmarkstone's death is a unique, rather fascinating one. The beautiful woman in nun's habit, Sister Mary John Gualbert, makes a striking, sympathetic figure, and her reason for taking the Holy Orders (directly tied, as it is, to the murderer's motive) is ingenious. As clever as the individual details may be, this Churchyard still rings a bit hollow, and the overall plotting and prose is functional but workmanlike. As with all the Torrie books thus far, this one is an enjoyable read but not an indispensable addition to the Mitchell oeuvre.
One caveat: Alison in Churchyard Salad refers to her past ordeal, related in Your Secret Friend, thus revealing plot and murderer (and outcome) of same. This may not matter much, as Friend offers up only one murder suspect in the first place, perhaps hampering the usual suspense of the whodunit form by answering the time-honored question right off the mark. But in case you're a purist, it's best to read the books in order.