“We have been recommended this hotel as very quiet,” went on Miss Popham.
Lupin was about to reply that it was fairly quiet except for a few burglaries, elopements, fires, and attempted murders, but on second thoughts decided silence would be best.
Lady Lupin Hastings is in need of a long rest following a bout with influenza. Her friend Diana’s guest house seems like the perfect place to recuperate. Instead of rest and relaxation, however, Lupin finds herself at the center of a crime wave that threatens Diana’s business—and the guests’ lives. Will the sweetly daffy Lupin be able to keep the hotel running while dealing with artistic temperaments, broken romances, and any number of suspicious “accidents”?
The Mystery at Orchard House is a delightful showcase for the scatterbrained Lady Lupin. A glamorous young aristocrat “with no brain at all,” there couldn’t be a more unlikely vicar’s wife, yet Lupin somehow manages to balance parish duties with occasional forays into detection. The mysteries here are very low-stakes, the book is barely structured at all, and Lupin isn’t even the one who solves the crime in the end. Nonetheless, the whole thing exudes such effortless charm that it’s hard to resist.
Though she is sad to leave her husband Andrew and young son Peter behind while she recovers, Lupin is touched by the way parishioners have responded to her illness.
Even Miss Gibson, the Sunday-school superintendent, is beginning to unbend to me a bit. You know, to start with, I think she thought Andrew had made a mistake in marrying me, but anyway she sent me some oranges when I was ill and a little book titled What a Mother Can Do for Her Child. I must read it sometime, it would be nice to know. Oh, and the guides sent me a beautiful illuminated text about smiling and singing under all difficulties. Not a very easy thing to do when you are being busy with the basin! I did try it once, but the nurse said, “Is the pain very bad, dear?” which was rather damping. Then the Parochial Church Council sent me some lovely flowers and a card attached, “With deepest sympathy,” which I thought a little premature.
She finds life at Orchard House far from peaceful, however. Her fellow guests all seem to be artists of some kind, like Diana’s cousin Paul Ramsden. “Anyone can admire a sunset,” he insists. “It takes the eye of an artist to appreciate a row of tenement houses or a fishmonger’s shop.” Most trying is Miss Dyson-Drake, who awakens Lupin in the night to announce that her “child” is missing. Only after Lupin has roused the whole house does Miss Dyson-Drake explain that the child is her book manuscript. (The plot of this novel is frequently discussed in loving detail. It gets funnier every time, but the most succinct description is Lupin’s: “A man fell in love with a woman, so he married her great friend and they all killed each other in bed.”)
Lupin kindly agrees to search for the manuscript, despite her increasingly certain belief that no one else could possibly want it. Along the way, she learns about the difficulties of the other guests. These include a poet who wants to be a mechanic, a married couple who are constantly quarreling and making up, and a domineering mother whose daughter yearns to break free. As more items go missing, and more strange events plague the hotel, Lupin will need all of her mental powers to deal with the situation.
She was never much of a one for ideas, and when she did have them, they weren’t very good ones. For instance, there had been that idea of a Pierrot show for the Communicants’ Guild. Well, that hadn’t been a very good idea, not really. Then she had thought of bribing the children with doughnuts to come to Sunday school. Two of them had been sick, but they had certainly had a record attendance for three Sundays, and she still secretly thought that it had been rather a brainwave, but, of course, Andrew knew best. Still, it had been an idea, whether good or bad.
She may not be any great intellectual, but Lupin has a great deal of emotional intelligence and a genuinely sweet nature that carry her through. Her scattiness could easily grow irritating, yet it’s impossible to dislike her, perhaps because Lupin really likes all sorts of people and wants to help them, even if she doesn’t always succeed. The style of writing is very simple, but I think this works for the character and Lupin’s thoughts are often all the more amusing for being presented so straightforwardly.
The only thing missing from The Mystery at Orchard House is a mystery. A number of random, not too serious, events occur, leading to slight inconvenience before being solved abruptly at the end by a character we’ve only just met. It’s so much fun to spend time with Lupin that this is only a minor drawback, but I’d like to see her involved in a more challenging case.
The book is enjoyable and very slight, but you feel much more could have been done with the central conceit. Lupin almost falls into being extremely annoying (and certainly would be in real life) but somehow just about manages to be charming, probably because she is so good-hearted.
The Mystery at Orchard House is out of print, but plenty of affordable Rue Morgue reprints are available.