LATE AND COLD (1967)

1967 Michael Joseph.


On the way downstairs he stopped at the door of the children's room and, putting his lips to the crack of the door, he said quietly, "Marion, mind you stay where you are, and keep the door locked. There's a dangerous man in the house." There was no reply. He repeated the message, this time by way of the keyhole. Then he realised that there was no key blocking the hole on the other side.

 

Timothy Herring, while attending to correspondences requesting aid from his historic building preservation society, comes across a letter calling for renovations on a ruined castle in North Wales. Intrigued, he investigates the structure and finds much of interest. A woman in trousers and a man in a monk's robe meet Timothy on the grounds, and this strange couple presents him with a key that allows him access to the adjacent manor house.

Timothy next pays a visit to the writer of the letter, a young woman named Marion Jones, who has become guardian of three orphaned children. Marion had been offered Nanradoc Castle by her cousin, artist Pembroke Pritchard Jones, and she was hoping to restore the place and raise the kids there. Timothy breaks the news that the open air castle, even repaired, would not be habitable; he also takes pity on the burdened woman. He moves Marion out of her cramped, unfriendly flat and places the makeshift family in rooms above the society's offices. Another visit to Nanradoc--this time with Marion--reunites Timothy with the tall monk and the strange woman, and the latter identifies herself as Olwen Jones, Pembroke's sister and owner of the manor house.

While Marion and her charges uncomfortably continue their tenancy, Timothy begins restoring the castle, of his own expense, with thoughts of opening the historic building to the public and hiring Marion as manager of the property. A celebratory medieval dinner at the castle (orchestrated by Timothy) yields high spirits for the attendants, but that evening Pembroke Jones is found unconscious, a steak knife from the feast buried into his back. Soon thereafter, construction workers make an unexpected discovery: the excavation of a filled-in well unearths the long-buried body of a woman. Records identify the deceased as Olwen Jones.


An enjoyable if not particularly memorable entry, Late and Cold is the second of six books featuring PHISBE honorary secretary Timothy Herring. Nanradoc Castle makes for an interesting setpiece, and the story's characters are likeable but not as colorful as those Mr. Herring encounters in his first outing, Heavy as Lead. Timothy's character continues its definition, and he seems very much the good chap who always tries to do the right thing. In this case, he contrives to help Marion Jones, a young schoolteacher taking care of three children. The group's temporary tenancy in attic rooms within the PHISBE building provides some comic moments as the caretakers find the occupancy a cause of endless troubles. Marion's martyr-like demeanor and Timothy's sense of gallantry--and they are both qualities which occasionally produce quixotic effects for their bearers--keep the story going and give their relationship a human, humane angle.

(Minor SPOILER in this paragraph.) The central mystery, which revolves around the murder of Olwen Jones and the stabbing of Pembroke Jones, is solid and understandable, though two authorial transgressions (both rather large ones) are undertaken. Neither should occur in a respectable mystery story; both directly refute certain rules established by a number of detective fiction clubs, groups and writers. The first misstep occurs to the reader when it is explained that the murderer's motive hinges on an altercation that happens, outside the book's narrative, between killer and victim. The incident really isn't referenced, and it would take an inspired guess to predetermine it before the book's end. The second misstep is more frustrating. The author--I'll say Malcolm Torrie, as Gladys Mitchell should have known better--actually explains away the sounds of furniture being moved and the appearance of a fireplace poker placed upon a bed as the work of a poltergeist. I accepted the supernatural element of Wraiths and Changelings because its tale centered around a ghost hunt. But with this incongruous exception, Late and Cold's plotline is firmly tethered to corporeal reality. The use of ghosts and "jiggery-pokery" is frowned upon as an ingredient in the solution of mystery stories, and with good reason. Such an other-worldly attribution feels unsatisfactory and lazy here. Those shortcomings aside, this book is still highly readable if ultimately, like the victim, rather disposable.