Heavy as Lead (Gladys Mitchell, as Malcolm Torrie)

By Gladys Mitchell, as Malcolm Torrie

First published: UK, Michael Joseph, 1966

Blurb (UK)

Among those interested in the restoration and preservation of ancient monuments, and buildings of historical importance, is a wealthy and influential Society which has as its deus ex machina a man named Timothy Herring.

Timothy’s duty is to visit sites which have been reported as being worthy of care and protection, and report upon them to his committee, who then decide whether or not to take action.

One of his assignments is to visit a delightful and interesting little church in a village named Parsons Purity.  The church has been stripped of its lead roof by thieves and the vicar, to the fury of many people in the village, has decided to have the re-roofing carried out in corrugated iron to save expense.

As the result of an indignant and almost hysterical letter from a lady in the village, Timothy is told to investigate her complaint, and he soon finds out that the condition of the church is by no means the only cause of dissension in the parish, but has become the focal point for various hatreds and feuds which have existed for many years.

He puts up at an inn, but as it is some distance from the scene of his investigations, he gladly accepts an invitation from the squire to stay at the Hall, although he is somewhat surprised by this mark of favour.

That somebody in the village resents his presence is soon evident.  On transit between the inn and the Hall his baggage is rifled, and, later, two attempts are made on his life.  In the end however, it is the squire who is murdered, and Timothy concludes that this was the result of a third attempt upon himself, but which claimed the wrong victim.  Further investigation shows that this is not so, and that the murderer intended all along to kill the squire.

Timothy, whose job in connection with the church roof gives him an opportunity for probing the mystery without this being too obvious, is determined to find out the identity of the murderer and bring him to book.  This, after running into considerable danger, he does.

The novel is one of suspense and action, but equal interest lies in the author’s knowledge of old buildings, village life, and English church architecture and fittings.  His characters are not from stock, but are vividly portrayed, and the action of the story arises naturally and inevitably from their prejudices, foibles and individuality.  The book, in fact, is not so much a thriller (in the accepted sense of the term) as a novel in which the characters are as important as the action and speed of the story.

My review

Foul deeds will rise, a rose by any other name, and Gladys Mitchell’s style is recognisable even when masquerading under the pseudonym of Malcolm Torrie. The mood ranges from facetiousness to dullness, and the book abounds in irrelevant digressions (witchcraft in Chapter One, long descriptions of architecture) and loose ends (witchcraft again, the death of Herring’s predecessor, the rifled suitcase mentioned in the blurb). The most interesting character, an amusingly horrible rogue of a squire, is murdered towards the end. Since his death occurs so late, there isn’t enough space for the reader to care whodunnit, siding with most of the characters in this respect.  The solution is far fetched and silly; the idea of the murderer running around challenging victims to duels – in 1960s England – boggles the mind.