YOUR SECRET FRIEND (1968)
1968 Michael Joseph.
"We couldn't meet in the churchyard in the daytime, and it's too beastly at night. We'll go where we went before, to that old empty house. It's ever so good. The next thing is about Veronica. She's willing to be our postulant, so first I'll show you how to draw the magic circle, and then I'll tell you the ritual, because it's got to be done right, or else the spell won't work."
"What spell?" enquired Mavis. The leader lowered her voice to tones of sepulchral significance.
"The spell that means death and destruction to rotten old April Fool," she murmured. "Floreat St. Trinian! Floreat Hecate! Floreat Diana... Now you all say it. Come on!"
The coven responded. Somewhere in the house a bell rang.
"That's prep.," said Mavis. "Couldn't we make a spell to mean death and destruction to prep.?"
Alison Marchmont Pallis, an attractive and headstrong mistress at a girls' school, has decided to lay down her kit and become a homeowner. With rather tenuous financial help from fellow teacher April Bounty, Alison purchases a large stone farmhouse estate called Little Monkshood. April suggests that they contact her cousin, Timothy Herring, to see if his Society for the Preservation of Buildings of Historic Interest might be able to help them renovate the house. Timothy makes Alison's acquaintance, and also learns that she is in a relationship with Simon Bennison, the school's music master. PHISBE agrees to help restore Little Monkshood, and shortly thereafter (and of no surprise to her cousin) flighty April decides not to buy into the estate, leaving Alison with the large farmhouse and accompanying mortgage.
April also manages to make enemies with Sandra Davidson, an ambitious student intent on forming a witch's coven with her friends. (April unwisely refers to the befreckled girl as "Cuckoo Egg.") The girls sneak over to the nearby house and perform a spell to curse the insulting teacher. The spell may have missed its target, however, as no harm appears to befall April Bounty. Later, Simon and Alison celebrate their housewarming with a bottle of wine, which happens to be laced with poison. Timothy arrives at the farmhouse to find Alison terribly ill and Simon dead in the solar. Unless the incident was a murder-suicide attempt on the part of the unhappily married music teacher, Timothy reasons, only one person carries a motive strong enough to wish the lovers dead. As Timothy oversees Alison's recovery, he spends the rest of his time building a case against the culprit.
The third Timothy Herring book follows the plotting formula of his two earlier adventures: a building needs PHISBE-fueled repair (it was a church in Heavy as Lead, a castle in Late and Cold, and a farmhouse here), and Timothy meets a Mysterious Woman in the course of his duties. Mysterious Woman triggers Mysterious Events, and eventually -- in each case, a good two-thirds of the way into the book -- a murder occurs. Timothy pokes around and eventually brings the killer to justice. It's an enjoyable, innocuous departure from the Dame Beatrice series, and leading man Herring provides Gladys Mitchell with a romantic hero poised to save the (strong-willed and sympathetic) damsel in distress. In Your Secret Friend, Timothy marries his current damsel, and Alison Pallis will help her husband navigate the Mysterious Events through the remaining Torrie titles.
Most notably, this book has no real mystery attached to its plot. The most likely suspect -- and, really, the only likely suspect -- turns out to have done it all along, and the "it" (the poisonings) does not occur until late in the book, leaving about 50 pages for the hunt and the wrap-up. Even so, the structure meets with some success, provided the reader is amenable to trading a detective story for a more generic crime novel. There are good things here: the architectural descriptions are vivid and smart; the characters -- from formidable headmistress Miss Pomfret-Brown to reluctant coven postulant Veronica -- are well-drawn and fun; and though there's an absence of suspense, the plot keeps a steady, assured pace. The schoolgirls' dabbling in witchcraft makes for a nice parody on a classic Mitchell theme ("What's bergamot?" "What's tansy?" "Wormwood? Ugh!"). And though the plot is slight, the story, and especially the writing thereof, is entertaining and effortless. There are better Gladys Mitchell books -- there are even better Malcolm Torrie titles -- but Your Secret Friend offers a fine and friendly divertissement.