ST. PETER'S FINGER (1938)
1938 Michael Joseph. Reprinted 1972 Tom Stacey; 1987 St. Martin's Press (U.S.); 1988 Sphere.
She looked back at the convent buildings. High in the church tower burned a steady light. Saint Peter's Finger they called it in the village. It was the warning to ships which the convent still made it a duty to show every night, although a new lighthouse, half a mile farther along the coast, had released it, in effect, from its ancient obligation to mariners. But as Saint Peter's Finger its glow was still noted on charts, and the nuns kept watch, two by two, in the lamp-room at night.
The light itself, Mrs. Bradley thought, looked friendly. The high walls and the gaunt, stark church threatened those without, yet gave an impression of guarding those within. But all dark deeds seemed possible--she had noticed it before--in tall buildings seen by moonlight.
Mrs. Beatrice Lestrange Bradley receives a visit from her barrister son, Ferdinand Lestrange, who brings with him a plea for help. The coastal convent and girls' school of Saint Peter's Finger reports that student Ursula Doyle has died under inexplicable circumstances. The poor girl was found in the filled tub of a guesthouse bathroom but the coroner discovers that she had died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Fearing public outcry at the suspicious death, the nuns ask the Home Office psychoanalyst to look into matters. Mrs. Bradley dutifully attends.
Arriving at the convent, the detective quickly learns that the flow of information runs differently here. Though the nuns don't withhold facts, neither do they extend them. Part of the difficulty lay in the circumstances: although none can believe little Ursula capable of committing the cardinal sin of suicide, the possibility of murder occurring at St. Peter's is particularly disagreeable. As facts continue to find against a ruling of accidental drowning, Mrs. Bradley is forced to start looking for a murderer.
A couple of outsiders fit nicely: the dead girl's aunt, Mrs. Maslin, moved one step closer to seeing Ursula's large inheritance bestowed to her own stepdaughter; Miss Bonnet, a visiting physical training mistress, certainly had the strength--and possibly a motive--for murder; and cousin Ulrica, an enigmatic girl with signs of religious mania, was the last person to see Ursula alive. Even simple-minded Sister Bridget, with affinities for a pet mouse and for starting fires, cannot be immediately ruled out. As a solution begins to form, Mrs. Bradley grows increasingly uneasy with the situation and warns the Mother Superior to take steps to avoid another crime. In so doing, the old sleuth will also have to act fast to preserve her own life.
Upon my first reading of St. Peter's Finger years ago, I was disappointed with the book's relative lack of high spirits when compared to early comedic stories like The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop and The Saltmarsh Murders. Revisiting it, I'm able to appreciate the novel's somber, subdued tone, perfectly appropriate for a story set within an efficient but not unsympathetic Christian convent. Doubtless Mitchell's sister, a Dominican nun, provided inspiration, and the book beautifully relates details of convent life--not just in the complines-and-matins scheduling but evoking the stern compassion of the women who carry it out.
Always a character writer, Gladys Mitchell gives each of the nuns a personality and voice which brings them to life. The author's observation of the school's history teacher, for example, runs this way: "Mother Lazarus was small, white-faced and uncannily energetic. She reported upon King Henry VIII as though he were a personal enemy, and upon Martin Luther as upon a man who had cheated her at cards." Though tempered here, Miss Mitchell's sense of humor is perfectly pitched. One more example, this a wry observation of decor: "A picture of Saint Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins, not all of whom were depicted, hung on the wall above the mantelpiece."
As focused and straightforward as the plotting of St. Peter's Finger is, the reader still needs to pay close attention to the final two chapters to avoid confusion over culprits. Near the tale's end one also finds a harrowing moment where children, women, and our detective are caught within a burning building as the fire climbs steadily out of control. The situation may sound melodramatic, but Mitchell overlays the scene with a sense of detached calm and inevitability, echoing the perspective of the trapped nuns, placing their fate in God's hands.
Gladys Mitchell revisits crime within a religious house in 1975's Convent on Styx. Though St. Peter's Finger is the better book, both are worth discovery.