“X” marks the spot at this, the 24th stop on the alphabet in crime fiction community meme’s perilous journey through this crime-ridden landscape. Thanks, as always, to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for her continued leadership of this tour. I hope I may be forgiven this week for slightly – er – adjusting the rules of this meme. We’ve been asked to choose books where the first letter of the title or of the author’s first or last name is the letter of the week. My choice for “X” is E. X. Ferrars’ Something Wicked, published in 1984; do middle initials count, Kerrie?
Something Wicked begins with retired professor Andrew Basnett, Ferrars’ sleuth, having lunch with his nephew, Peter Dilly. Andrew Basnett is an engaging sleuth. He’s in his seventies, and Ferrars paints a realistic portrait of an aging man. Yet, Basnett’s mind is keen, his instincts sound and his perspective lively. Basnett’s looking for a place to stay while his own flat is being remodeled. Peter Dilly is looking for someone to stay the winter in his cottage in the village of Godlingham. Dilly himself will be away for the winter, and doesn’t want his cottage to stand empty. The arrangement is soon made, and Basnett arrives at Godlingham, looking forward to a quiet winter of writing.
When Basnett gets to Godlingham, he’s soon greeted warmly by Dilly’s neighbors Jack and Annabel Fidler and Godfrey and Hannah Goodchild. He also meets Dilly’s housekeeper, Mrs. Nesbit, and another neighbor, Simon Kemp, All of the neighbors seem friendly and even overly attentive, but Basnett settles in and prepares to enjoy his stay.
Before long, Basnett begins to hear the local gossip, mostly concerning Pauline Hewison, a wealthy and somewhat mysterious widow who lives near the cottage where Basnett’s staying. The story is that Pauline Hewitt killed her husband in order to inherit his fortune. Gradually, Basnett learns more about what happened from his various neighbors. Six years ago, a terrible snowstorm hit the area, causing a blackout. Pauline’s story was that a burglar took advantage of the conditions to try to rob the Hewisons’ home. Charles Hewison caught the burglar and was shot. Basnett’s also told that most people don’t believe that story. According to the villagers, Pauline Hewison’s husband, Charles, had been going to financially underwrite Newsome’s, the school that his brother, Henry, founded. When Pauline found out about his plan she shot him, since she wanted to inherit the money. The only problem with this theory is that at the time of the murder, Pauline Hewison was playing bridge with the Fidlers, both of whom have sworn that she was there. So, although a lot of suspicion and ill-will swirl around Pauline (and the Fidlers), nothing’s been proven.
The animosity that many people feel towards Pauline isn’t just because there’s talk that she may have killed her husband. It’s also because, since Charles Hewison was never able to underwrite Newsome’s, the school is now in serious financial trouble and may have to close. Pauline Hewison has never donated money to the school and there’s a lot of resentment against her because of her apparent unwillingness to support the school.
Basnett’s not sure how much truth there is to the rumors about Pauline Hewison. Since she’s never been exactly on friendly terms with the neighbors, Basnett wonders whether it’s simply the villagers’ prejudice against her that’s making them believe she’s guilty. Then, a snowstorm hits the area. To make matters worse, there’s a blackout in Godlingham. Now, everyone’s concentrating on making the best of the terrible weather and lack of electricity. Strangely enough, this is the same sort of terrible weather that hit the area when Charles Hewison was killed, and then, tragically, history seems to repeat itself.
One day, Henry Hewison calls Basnett, asking if he can stop over, since he’s just received some interesting information and wants to know what Basnett makes of it. Basnett agrees, but when he returns to the cottage that evening, he finds a dying Henry Hewison on the floor of his cottage. By the time the police and medical help can arrive, Hewison has died without telling Basnett what he’d come to say. As the police begin to investigate Hewison’s death, Basnett becomes convinced that his death is connected to his brother’s murder six years earlier. So he begins to ask even more questions and put the pieces of the puzzle together. In the end, Basnett finds that the Hewison brothers’ deaths are connected, but in an interesting and surprising way.
Something Wicked is a very interesting study of small-town prejudice and the barriers that it sets up between people. Throughout the novel, we hear various characters’ opinions of Pauline Hewison and their beliefs about whether she killed her husband. We also hear some interesting details about her past from people who are only too happy to gossip about her and malign her. We also hear her opinion of the locals, which is just as interesting.
The rich characters are perhaps the most compelling aspect of Something Wicked. As we get to know the villagers, we learn about them bit by bit, as Basnett does. The effect adds quite a lot of depth to the novel. Everyone in the village has some connection to Pauline Hewison that isn’t apparent at first, and as Basnett finds out what those connections are, he also finds out quite a lot about the characters’ history. Those histories, and the network of relationships, have given many of the villagers a reason to resent Pauline, and that adds an interesting layer of tension to the novel (and some believable motives for framing her for murder).
The suspense in the novel is heightened by the terrible snowstorm which (as cliché as this sounds) almost takes on a life of its own. The snow and ice strand everyone, and the loss of power leaves everyone vulnerable. The villagers do their best to cope, but it’s clear that the weather has made everyone tense and anxious. Most especially, it makes Andrew Basnett tense and anxious. The cottage he’s living in is completely powered by electricity, so when the power goes out, he has no way to heat his home or cook. He does get help from the various neighbors, but he certainly feels at the mercy of the elements, and we feel his anxiety and discomfort as he tries to deal with the cold and the lack of power.
Something Wicked is an “English village” mystery with interesting characters, secret histories and very effective use of treacherous weather. There’s a solid sense of humor about the novel that keeps it from being heavy, and the dialogue is authentic. Fans of crime fiction where past sins are connected to present murders will probably enjoy this, and for those fans, I recommend it.