Thursday, December 11, 2014

IN BRIEF: Witchwater - G. M. Wilson

Witchwater, 1st UK paperback (Digit, 1963)
"It's easy to scoff at devil worship, and blood pacts, broomstick riding and other sorceries when you're safe at home in broad daylight, within easy reach of human companionship; not so easy when you're alone in the cold and darkness with only a strip of Stygian, mist haunted water between you and the so-called witch's cottage."

I thought that all of Wilson's books had the team of Miss Purdy, mystery writer "of a certain age" and apparently no first name, and Inspector Lovick. But this early entry in Wilson's bibliography reveals that Miss Purdy was not in every book. There is another policeman who often works in tandem with Lovick by the name of John Crawford. In Witchwater (1961) Crawford calls upon Lovick's help in the case of a questionable death of young girl and a series of attacks on some women in a Norfolk village still haunted by the legend of Mother Daw, a 17th century witch executed in the broads and marshes on the outlying edge of the town.

Against his better judgment Dr. Patrick Mallard approaches Inspector Crawford and pleads with him to look into the recent death of a little girl Nelly Pizey who died suddenly supposedly of natural causes. Dr. Mallard thinks otherwise. Her shivering, her inability to speak, and refusal to eat he ascribes to one cause -- she received the fright of her life and succumbed. In other words, she was scared to death. After asking a few questions of her parents and siblings he discovers she had been sneaking outside to visit a friend and upon her return home must have encountered something terrifying, perhaps the Devil himself. Crawford scoffs at this superstitious explanation. Mallard goes on to report the Mr. Pizey's story of a strange black cat with a silver collar that has been seen around the marshes near the Pizey home. Mallard is certain the cat is connected to legend of Mother Daw, ancient witch, and urges Crawford to investigate the supposedly abandoned cottage known as Witchwater.

Begrudgingly Crawford decides to look into the matter. He has enough on his plate with the recent escape of George Brown, a young man arrested for a string of smash-and-grab robberies in which nothing but frivolous women's clothing and jewelry was taken. A woman is involved, Crawford tells his policemen crew, perhaps even the instigator and accomplice in the robberies.  Still Mallard's story is so strange and the doctor's concern so genuine Crawford feels obligated to make at least one visit to the site of Nelly's run-in with the cat.

Norfolk broads
Two more reports of cat attacks then follow in quick succession, this time with adult women as victims of the feline menace.  And then the wife of the temperamental sculptor Steve Anderson is found drowned in the marsh with cat scratches on her hands and face.  The superstitious townspeople begin gossiping. Mother Daw is back and witchcraft is being done. Crawford, Lovick and their team need to find the cat, its owner, and put an end to the rash of accidents and injuries before the townfolk turn into a lynch mob and take matters into their own hands.

Witchwater surpasses Nightmare Cottage (previously reviewed here) in terms of creepy atmosphere and suspense. Wilson has a genuine talent for building up tension and ending her chapters with cliffhangers that keep you turning the pages at a rapid pace. The detection is sound with some cleverly placed clues that earn her major points on the detective novel scorecard. While the identity of the criminal may not be as surprising as one would hope certainly the telling of the story is exciting and moody. Though less complicated in plot than some of her later books Wilson should also be credited for the seamless connection of the two storylines -- the robberies ultimately intersect with the story of Jessica Daw, the last of the Daws who fancies herself a junior sorceress.

For a long time Wilson manages to create a series of impossible situations that appear to have occurred only through magical intervention as in the manner in which the sinister cat gains entry to locked houses. Her knowledge of witchcraft trials, the Malleus Maleficarum, and the history of witchcraft in Eastern England all add to the authenticity of the plot. In fact, the cat's weird name Elemauzer -- taken from one of the ancient witch's familiars written down in The Discovery of Witches, Matthew Hopkins' famed witch trial handbook -- will serve as the major clue in solving the string of accidents, two murders and an act of arson. Witchwater is one of the better detective novels of the mid twentieth century dealing with seemingly supernatural events and the malicious exploitation of superstitious beliefs.

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Reading Challenge update: I'm using this to knock off space S3 "Book with a crime other than murder". Theft, arson and other crimes are featured. This gives me my first (and perhaps only) Bingo on the Silver Age card.

2 comments:

  1. The Wilsons just sounds better and better and I love the sound of this one - thanks John.

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  2. Can you tell me were this book is available (other than your book-shop !) ?
    I couldn't locate any.

    ReplyDelete