“There’s something all wrong about this. God alone knows what it means.”
Lady’s Bower is the loveliest cottage in Somersetshire—more beautiful, even, than the nearby manor house Crosby Hall. Visitors are often surprised to find this choice property occupied by a servant, but Mrs. Lubbock deserves it after her years of service to the Crosby family. Mrs. Lubbock is enjoying a happy retirement, with her three daughters settled in life. Amy and Isabel are ladies’ maids in London. Lucy, a trained nurse, lives at home with her mother while working in the village hospital. It’s even rumored that Lucy has caught the eye of Dr. Christopher Crosby, the heir to Crosby Hall.
It seems impossible that anything bad could happen in such an idyllic setting. But the Lubbock family’s peaceful life is about to be shattered by violent death…not just once, but again and again.
Cottage Sinister is a deceptively gentle, amusing tale of rural mayhem that builds to an impressive body count. There’s not much hope of solving this one unless you’re a scientist (like coauthor Richard Webb, who worked with various writing partners under the names of Q. Patrick, Jonathan Stagge, and, most famously, Patrick Quentin). The solution is very clever but highly specialized. Still, Cottage Sinister offers all the charm of a traditional village mystery with a tart core that keeps things from getting too sentimental.
It all begins innocently enough, as a group of friends gather at Lady’s Bower to celebrate Amy and Isabel’s visit home. Amy is well-liked, and the crowd includes at least one hopeful suitor. Isabel’s sharp tongue makes her less popular than her sister. Mrs. Lubbock and Lucy are present, of course, along with Dr. Hoskins and several of Lucy’s colleagues from the hospital. Lady Crosby, her son Christopher, and their friend Vivien Darcy even drop by from Crosby Hall. Everyone eats and drinks the same refreshments, yet by morning, Amy will be dead of poison. More deaths will follow in the days to come, as suspects become murder victims themselves.
With the county constable laid up by gout, Scotland Yard sends one of their best men down to the village of Crosby-Stourton: Inspector Inge, known as the Archdeacon. The Archdeacon is presented to the reader as a Great Detective, and he certainly sees himself that way. He prides himself on his logical crime-solving methods. “He was an expert in psychological crimes because he never used his imagination—an adept at motiveless murder because he firmly believed that there was no such thing…he did not believe that anything could be really mysterious!” The Archdeacon revels in his catchy nickname, even affecting all-black garb and an ascetic demeanor in the hope that someone will mistake him for a clergyman so that he can dramatically reveal his true identity.
There is a hint of absurdity to this character, just enough that the reader is never quite sure how seriously to take his sleuthing. The Archdeacon is always painfully aware of himself as a detective. He daydreams of earning new nicknames like “the Society Detective” and sizes up his fellow train passengers in the manner of Sherlock Holmes (though with less success). Still, the village casts a spell over the Archdeacon. He finds himself constantly torn between his duties and the beauty of the countryside.
He was enjoying the case very much indeed. He had never been quite so comfortable in his life. He liked the village. The old cottages, with their crumbling stones, their mossy roofs and bright, cheerful gardens, gave him a sense of peace and repose. He took a quiet pleasure in the gentle, unobtrusive wisdom of the rustics. He liked the village and—above all—he liked his propinquity to the aristocracy. A twinge of conscience reminded him that he had no right to be enjoying himself in the midst of tragedy and death. And yet, in some innermost recess of his mind, he secretly wished that the case might not prove too easy—or, at least, that the solution might not present itself too quickly.
The Archdeacon is equally delighted and baffled by his contacts with the local gentry. Lady Crosby is no ordinary country gentlewoman. She has known for many years that her husband, Sir Howard, loves his land and his horses more than the wife whose money pays for it all. Instead, she turns her attention to other things, in particular her son Christopher and the education of her protégé Lucy Lubbock. Lady Crosby encourages Christopher to attend medical school against his father’s wishes. Their mutual interest in medicine is also bringing Christopher and Lucy closer, causing a local scandal. (“It all happened on the day when Doctor Hoskins was doing that op for multiple tumors three weeks ago. You know—I was doing the anesthetic and you were holding the instruments while he worked,” confides the lovelorn Christopher.)
Cottage Sinister offers all the pleasures of a typical village mystery with a mild vein of cynicism running throughout. Attractive though it may be, Crosby-Stourton is presented as insignificant even in its own region. “True, Wordsworth walked over one day from Nether-Stowey and wrote a rather poor sonnet in praise of its ‘historic stones and slumbrous living dead,’ but he soon passed on and wrote better sonnets elsewhere.” It is populated by eccentric characters whose opinions are easily swayed by gossip. Some are a little too eccentric, in particular the village constable who is addicted to misusing big words, but others are more entertaining.
Let it never for a moment be supposed that Mrs. Greene so much as breathed a word of what she had read in the telegrams. She listened very carefully to all that was told her and then went on her mute and mysterious way. And yet—somehow or other—her very silence, coupled with various noddings and shakings of the head and an attitude of “I could a tale unfold” was more pregnant of wild rumors than if she had disclosed the whole contents of Dr. Hoskins’ dispatches.
The murders at Lady’s Bower illustrate how old traditions are giving way to modernity, even in this isolated village. Local girls are no longer content to work as servants. Squires’ children want to marry for love, not money or social position. Modern medicine offers new treatments for age-old problems, as afflictions that ruined the lives of older generations can now be treated and discussed frankly. I was initially surprised by this book’s setting in an English village, having always associated Patrick/Quentin/Stagge with more sophisticated American milieus. Despite the seemingly quaint backdrop here, however, Cottage Sinister is fully on the side of youth, science, and progress. When Sir Howard advises Christopher against his friendship with Lucy, arguing that it is “tactless for a young man in your position to go around so ostentatiously with the daughter of a servant,” his son disagrees.
In my position…and what exactly is my position, sir? A young and indifferent medical student with his way to make and not even one major operation to his credit. In what respect am I superior to a fully trained and remarkably efficient young nurse?
Many young people of the village are cheerfully going their own way, to the astonishment of their elders. With change comes conflict, however, and this generation gap may have deadly consequences.
Cottage Sinister accomplishes a neat trick. It includes the atmosphere a reader might wish to find in a golden-age village mystery, while adding more modern and humorous touches that subvert the standard cliches. The solution includes several impressive twists that almost make up for the lack of fair play. There are some first-novel wobbles: it’s a little long, there’s a stretch in the middle where nothing much happens, and the rustic dialect adds nothing to the book. Still, maybe I’m just in the right mood for this sort of thing right now, for I found Cottage Sinister a thoroughly enjoyable place to spend time.
It’s really everything that you want from this type of story wrapped up with a neat little bow. Top that off with a solution that truly caught me off guard (and predates a similar known-but-not-exactly-famous twist) and I was left a bit stunned. This is one of those books that you finish thinking “damn, that was good”, and then a week later you’re wanting to preach the gospel of. Just to be clear, there’s nothing exceptionally brilliant about this one – don’t think you’ll walk away shell shocked or enamored by some clever jolt – but man, the pure GADness of this is astounding.
Their first mystery, Cottage Sinister, has all the trappings of a classic English village mystery, but something about it just doesn’t work like it should, in my view.
Cottage Sinister is available as an ebook in the US from the Mysterious Press.