Luke Fitzwilliam, newly returned to England, meets Lavinia Pinkerton as she is on her way to Scotland Yard to report a series of murders. He doesn’t believe her story but is forced to think again after reading that she died in a hit and run accident and that the man she expected to be killed next has also died.
Posing as both an author with an interest in rural folklore and as the cousin of his best friend’s cousin, Bridget Conway, he inveigles himself into the village of Wychwood-under-Ashe.
Here he investigates the deaths of the five possible victims to date, trying to find a connection between them and the other villagers, one of whom may be, beneath their normal outward appearance, a cunning serial killer.
I have only read this once before and it is much better than I remembered. if I had not come across the killer’s identity from too much Sporcling, I think I would have been fooled again.
Sadly we see too little of Miss Pinkerton who, with her belief that “the world is a very wicked place”, is a parallel of Miss Marple but without a nephew or police commissioner that she can share her suspicions with.
Signs of the Times
Luke arrives back in England on the day of the Derby, which would make it the first Wednesday in June (since 1995 it has moved to the first Saturday). The Derby was first run in 1780 and is considered the most prestigious of the five annual classic flat races.
Having not got back on his train Luke rattles of what seems to be a string of four quotes yet I can only find details of two of them. “Quoth the raven ‘Nevermore'” is from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1845 poem “The Raven”. “The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on” is from “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” which Christie would later use a the title of a Miss Marple novel.
Miss Pinkerton laments the abolition of second class rail travel. Most railways had done this in the late 19th century, although the Great Western Railway did it as late as 1910. Third class was renamed second class in 1956 and then became standard class in the 1980s.
The Abercrombie Poisoning Case sounds like a genuine story but I can find no reference to it. Poirot and Japp solved the undocumented Abercrombie Forgery Case.
Jimmy Lorrimer suggests that Miss Pinkerton was run over because she trusted to a Belisha beacon. Named after Leslie Hore-Belisha, Minister of Transport, this familiar British signal was added in 1934 to pedestrian crossings which up to then had only been marked by large metal studs in the road. The black (initially blue) and white stripes were added from 1949 to make the zebra crossing we know today.
Lorrimer owns a Ford V 8. This had been introduced in 1932, initially known as the Model 18, but it took its nickname from its flathead V8 engine.
Luke hums “the fly has married the bumblebee”, a nursery rhyme that I had never heard of. It turns out that Parson Beetle conducted the ceremony.
On first seeing Bridget Conway, Luke is reminded of Nevinson’s “Witch”. This is probably “An Inexperienced Witch” painted by C. R. W. Nevinson (1889-1946) best known for his pictures of the First World War.
Miss Waynflete went to Girton College. It was founded in 1869 as the first women’s college in Cambridge and was given full college status by the university in 1948.
Luke says “anybody who can believe six impossible things before breakfast wins hands down at this game” a reference to the White Queen in Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”.
After sketching out some possibilities Luke says “-which is absurd. How nicely Euclid put things.” Reductio ad absurdum is a form of logical proof where a statement can be proved to be true or false by assuming the opposite and following it to a contradictory conclusion (one of my favourites is the proof that there is no largest prime number and so the primes are infinite). The method was developed by Greek philosophers and mathematicians, including Euclid.
Luke refers to the Witch of Endor who appears in 1 Samuel Chapter 28.
Kreuzhammer’s “Inferiority and Crime” owned by Dr Thomas, and the case studies cited therein, seems to be a fictional work.
Major Horton has copies of “Country Life”. This is a weekly magazine first published in 1897 when its main content was golf and horse racing.
Luke quotes “I do not like thee, Dr Fell, the reason why I cannot tell.” The full quote ends “but this I know and know full well, I do not like thee Dr Fell.” It is said that this was Tom Brown’s (1662-1704) on the spot translation of Martial’s thirty-second epigram which had been set as a challenge by John Fell with the reward being the cancellation of his expulsion from Christ Church, Oxford.
Mrs Church refers to the violently horrible Castor case which is another fictional example of multiple murder. Searching for this I found that Stacey Castor (1967-2016) poisoned two husbands and then tried to frame her daughter for the crimes.
Miss Waynflete refers to the Science Museum in London. This traces its origins back to 1857 when Bennet Woodcroft opened the South Kensington Museum. The Arts parts of this collection became the Victoria and Albert Museum whilst the Sciences elements were split off, finally becoming an independent entity in 1909. The current building was built 1929-1938.
Lord Whitfield refers to the bears that devoured the children who mocked Elisha which occurs in 2 Kings Chapter 2.
The chapter title “O Why Do You Walk Through the Fields in Gloves” is taken from Frances Cornford’s 1910 poem “To a Fat Lady Seen from a Train”. G. K. Chesterton wrote a response in his 1927 poem “The Fat Lady Answers”.
References to previous works
The Wychwood pub is called “The Bells and Motley”. Mr Satterthwaite met Mr Quin in a pub with the same name but in a different village in The Mysterious Mr Quin.
Vintage Mystery Challenge
Fulfils “Where– Set in a small village”.
Already knowing that Miss Waynflete was the killer, it is clear from what Miss Pinkerton says that there is no reason to assume that the murderer is male, so the careful reader may pick up on this and have an easier time in solving this one. The erroneous assumption of a murderer’s gender is much better done in a later Christie.
It is cleverer that Luke assumes that because it was a hit and run it is the car driver who has killed Miss Pinkerton, especially when it is found that eyewitnesses have given the registration number of Lord Whitfield’s Rolls Royce, when in actual fact timing such an event would be very difficult and the classic push off the kerb is much easier and less risky.
There is a good pool of suspects and then the switch to the megalomaniacal Lord Whitfield as the “definite” killer is well done. We have (due to the staccato speech of the upper classes) his confession of killing the canary, coupled with Miss Waynflete’s account of the same event, evidence of much earlier instability, and yet is that which causes Bridget, knowing him so well, to begin to see things the right way round – classic Christie!