HEAVY AS LEAD (1966)

1966 Michael Joseph.

 

"Do I have to call you Mr. Herring all the evening?"

"I agree it's a damn silly name. What about Timothy?--unless you prefer Francis. I answer to both, also to Hi, or to any loud cry, but I like Timothy or, of course, Francis, better."


Timothy Herring is acting secretary of PHISBE, a society concerned with the restoration and preservation of buildings that have historic value. Timothy's rather benign assignment to investigate a Norman style church in the village of Parsons Purity soon leads to more sinister doings. The church lacks its lead roof, taken away in the night by vandals, and the vicar wants to replace it with corrugated iron (the material gracing the tops of chicken coops). This plan doesn't sit well with the members of PHISBE.

Timothy visits the village to talk with the vicar, a quarrelsome man named Winterbottom. While there, he soon makes the acquaintance of a bounder of a baronet, Sir Ganymede Troggett. No one in the town likes the shady squire, and it's hinted that Troggett may have had a hand in the roof theft. Timothy is invited to stay at Troggett's country house, an invitation he accepts. Before long, Timothy notices strange things happening around him: someone has taken the society's report on the church from his briefcase; a ladder pushes away from the church wall, with Timothy still upon it; and he wakes at Troggett Hall to find in his bedroom a visitor carrying a knife. Encountering resistance from the vicar and the townspeople at the idea of tiling or thatching the church roof, Timothy is ready to give up on the building and escape the town, but two events pull him back to Parsons Purity: the destruction of his car by a homemade bomb and the murder of Sir Ganymede Troggett.

Sir Ganymede is found in his rock garden, stabbed in the heart, yet no weapon is found near the body. Around him are strewn flowers, yet they don't appear to have come from his garden. The body of a poisoned dog lies nearby. The police detain Horace Pimm, a villager and fellow gardener who feuded with Troggett and whose alibi is weak. Timothy is convinced of Pimm's innocence, and can't see the accused man orchestrating the attempts on his life. As Pimm's trial continues, Timothy works to clear the defendant and bring the true murderer to justice.


Heavy as Lead is the first of six titles featuring building historian and amateur sleuth Timothy Herring, a likeable, capable chap with a bourgeois demeanor and a dash of sex appeal. The Malcolm Torrie books gave Gladys Mitchell an opportunity to try out a new protagonist while continuing her Dame Beatrice Bradley series, which would continue strongly at a rate of at least one new entry a year. The fact that only a half dozen Herring books were published is attributable not to lack of artistic success, but of a commercial one--Miss Mitchell said she stopped writing as Malcolm Torrie due to poor book sales.

In style and structure, these books are similar to the Dame Beatrice novels from the same decade. I found Heavy as Lead every bit as enjoyable as the Mitchell titles, with the same colorful strengths in prose, characterization, dialogue and plotting. The story felt more linear and less tangled than some Dame B. tales, perhaps partially because the narrative's tight focus stays on Timothy and his immediate actions. The narrative voice is presented in the third person, yet we only experience the story through Mr. Herring's perspective, right down to the newspaper account of the trial that he reads. This viewpoint also allows the reader the chance of playing detective, as we are provided with the same information as the protagonist.

The murder mystery in this book is an engrossing one, stuffed (appropriately) with red herrings. Motives are abundant, and I was fairly sure I had identified murderer and motive halfway through, only to be wrong on both counts. As is sometimes a Mitchell hallmark, the mystery solution wasn't quite as satisfying as the reading experience to get there. Along the journey, several singularly entertaining moments pop up: Timothy's constant defense of his societal acronym (and its mistaken connotation with Thisbe, who, says Timothy to his committee, "wears immortality as a garment in her own right, as we do."); a raucous town meeting, with Timothy facing a voluble audience and Troggett yelling back at them ("You louts and misfits from Coggs Lane will shut your perishing heads, dammit! I shall come down there and disembowel you, Herbert Sims, if you let out one more crack!"); the witness parade at Pimm's trial; even a romantic subplot with Herring and a woman with a hidden past wears well. Heavy as Lead makes for light, quick reading, and even under another name, Gladys Mitchell's talents as a storyteller shine through.