Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Death of an Old Girl: Review

Death of an Old Girl is the first book in Elizabeth Lemarchand's series featuring Chief Detective Inspector Tom Pollard and Sergeant Toye.  It is set at the Meldon School for girls.  At the end of year Festival, Beatrice Baynes, one of the "old girls" who attended the school back in the day, does what she does best--stir up trouble.  She is an interfering, overbearing, spiteful snoop who can't stand the changes that have been made to the school since her day.  She's particularly displeased with the Head Mistress Helen Renshaw who has brought about the changes and the new art teacher Ann Cartmell who encourages the girls to paint all sorts of sordid pictures (bare backs, for goodness sake!).  She creates quite a stir at the festival's assembly--criticizing Miss Cartmell, the new curriculum, other new staff members, and suggestion that money from the Old Meldonian's Society funds be used to help buy new "modern" pictures for the school.  

There are others who displease her as well....her nephew who can't seem to hold down a job to save his life and who seems to depend too much on her good will as well as his expectations in her will; her god-daughter who can't seem to do anything right--according to Miss Baynes; and the gardener who has let the precious school's grounds go to wrack and ruin. Not to mention the Old Meldonians and new girls who aren't part of her "stick to the old ways" posse.  So, it's no surprise that none of them seem terribly upset when Beatrice Baynes is found dead in the art studio--stuffed in a large puppet theater--after the Old Meldonian Society Festival is over.  Sure, they're a bit upset that a murder has happened at all...for what will the parents of the girls and the public think?  But there isn't much feeling for the victim.

Inspector Pollard has a job ahead of him and no mistake.  Lots of suspects--folks who had their run-ins with the lady, but few with a real motive that would seem to warrant murder.  And those with the strongest motive all seem to have an alibi.  After several false starts and clearing out all the red herrings, Pollard finally sees the outline of the real motive.  Lemarchand has crafted an excellent mystery.  The clues are all there...not that I think you'll catch them all or see them for what they are if you do.  I've read other (later) Pollard and Toye books and it was very nice to see their beginnings.  Even in this first book, their characters are well-defined and a real treat to read about.  I thoroughly enjoyed this "old school" academic mystery--three and a half stars.


CSC: What do you consider the most striking feature of the murder?
CDIP: It's unpremeditated character, sir.
CSC: Quite. That adds to your difficulties, too, doesn't it?  No nice trail of poison-buying  under false names, or secondhand typewriters acquired in disguise.  Just a handy paper-weight picked up on the spur of the moment.  You needn't necessarily have a motive in the ordinary sense of the word.
~Chief Superintendent Crowe; Chief Detective Inspector Pollard (p. 109)

He's the kind of man who weighs up asking you to bed with him with the possible effect on his reputation if it gets out.  Never mind yours. [Mrs. Pollarard; p. 112] 

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