Eric Shepherd has written both an engaging detective novel and a primer in the life of 1940s British nuns. Shepherd's sister was a mother superior according to a book review in Rockford, Illinois Catholic newspaper The Observer, (see the article here) so he presumably knows of what he writes. The most interesting thing I discovered was that most of the elderly nuns refer to themselves as Mother rather than Sister. Perhaps that's peculiar to England or to this order, though we are never told to which order these nuns belong. But onto the story itself...
Baroness Sliema, a temporary guest at the convent, has been found stabbed in the chapel during daily mass. Not particularly well-liked by both the staff and the students her death becomes the topic of girlish gossip peppered with flagrant talk of a well deserved violent end. When the police are called in we begin to see what Shepherd has in mind as the secular world meets the religious world head on. The police are in for quite an education themselves as the murder investigation progresses.
First to arrive on the scene is the brash Detective Sgt. Osbert whose insensitivity and rudeness is matched only by his own discomfort at being treated as a guest, not as a cop, by so many old women in funny costumes. He can't wait to call in Scotland Yard and hand the case over to Chief Inspector Andrew Pearson. Pearson is the complete opposite of Osbert -- gentlemanly, suave, decorous to the point of embarrassment. He first mistakenly asks to see the Lady Abbess and is immediately corrected, almost reprimanded, by Mother Peck, second in command:, "Reverend Mother is not in the habit of receiving visitors on the doorstep." Pearson experiences his own level of discomfort as well, but he soon warms up to Reverend Mother Superior in whom he sees kindness, wisdom, and a love of strict discipline. It is the disciplined life of the nuns that most impresses Pearson and he surprises himself in drawing analogies between life in a convent and the life of a policeman. As the case progresses he sees that nuns and police have a lot in common.
Among Pearson's primary adult suspects are the haughty Venetia Gozo, a Maltese woman who acted as secretary to the Baroness; Mrs. Moss, the Baroness' companion; Baron Sliema, the victim's son; and Mr. Turtle, the handyman-gardener for the convent grounds. Turtle was my favorite of the lot. He seems to have wandered into the book from the pages of a George Eliot novel complete with Yorkshire accent. He's filled with the refreshing kind of common sense and common talk so welcome after pages of theology and philosophy from Reverend Mother and girlish antics from the students. Turtle is also the only man in this world of women. Having the inspector around gives Turtle a chance to kick back and let down his guard. His invitation to Pearson at the tail end of his interrogation scene is priceless: "And should you ever find the oppression of women too much for you up at the 'ouse, you come down 'ere and refresh yourself with Turtle."
One more thing about Pearson's detective skills. He is equipped with an overly sensitive sense of smell. Throughout the book his olfactory bulb is assailed with a pungent odor that seems to permeate certain rooms. It's vaguely familiar, but each time he tries to put a name to the scent he comes up wanting. The piece of veil Verity finds is reeking with the smell. It trails throughout the cloisters near the scene of the crime. The smell haunts him throughout the story. And it will prove to be the most damning clue in determining the identity of the murderer when that odor's source is discovered and it's given a name.
|Margaret Wycherly and Pedro de Cordoba in|
the first production of the play version
Fourteen years later Eric Shepherd wrote a sequel called More Murder in a Nunnery (1954). I have yet to find a copy so I am unsure if Pearson meets up with Reverend Mother Superior at Harrington Convent School again or if she acts as an amateur sleuth with her sister colleagues without Pearson.