It is 1936, the year of the Spanish Civil War and the British abdication crisis, and Sarah Causeley is the new Governess for the youngest child of the Hallam family, for generations the lords of a small village in Oxfordshire. She quickly falls in love with the whole clan, but not everybody feels the same way. Stoked by Major Coffey, a fascist embittered after his limelight was stolen by Oswald Mosley, a series of nasty pranks are played on the family. And then one night a dead body is found on their front lawn, lying next to a skeleton …
I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.
“It’s an observable phenomenon,” insisted Dennis. “And all over the country. Mad women wear socks in Scotland and Wales too.”
“Oh, absolutely,” agrees Elizabeth. “But does a taste for ankle socks drive you mad, or does madness somehow create a taste for ankle socks?”
“And are all ankle-sock wearers mad, and do all mad women wear ankle socks?” contributed Sarah.
This is a beguiling mystery in the truest sense as it is as much about the unravelling of a clever plot as the seduction of Sarah by the progressive and charming Hallams. While the use of the ‘least likely’ suspect gambit will recall Agatha Christie, Barnards’s favourite mystery writer, Evelyn’s Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited is also clearly a major influence, only the Hallams are thankfully not haunted by Catholicism. Instead we see Sarah initially being utterly taken by the family’s bonhomie and do-goodery but then she starts to mature and see that the Hallams are in fact very far from perfect. To make this point Barnard occasionally jumps forward in Sarah’s life to 1941, the mid 1950s and then into the 60s and 70s to get better perspective on the people.
“The present Mr Hallam has often refused to prosecute poachers caught on his farms. Some of the tenants are quite bitter about it.”
Dennis Hallam inherited the state after the death of his brother in the First World War, while he was invalided out early on (some say by shooting himself), and knows that he is not best suited to the job, much preferring to write book reviews for The Observer and undertake other more intellectual pursuits. Oldest son Will decides to head off to Spain to fight in the war, much to the family’s worry, daughter Elizabeth concentrates on her plans to make her debut in high society while Oliver continues his studies at Oxford. While Sarah looks after six-year-old Chloe, she gets to meet the Hallam’s extended family – including Cousin Mostyn, a pleasant man but a bit of a buffoon holding a small position in government. It is while the family is at a party at his house that the death occurs but as the house was stuffed with people it is impossible for anybody to have much of an alibi – did the Hallams decided to kill the prankster in revenge? The village soon starts to think so but, despite the best efforts of the police, it will ultimately be years before Sarah learns the truth. The plot is good (Barnard was always a very cunning writer) but its the characterisation and small village period flavour that I really enjoyed. A top-notch book and a good mystery too. TracyK recently reviewed this book over at her blog, Bitter Tea and Mystery.
The I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘other than murder’ category as the killing ultimately proves accidental: