Friday, 11 February 2011

Forgotten Book - The Warrielaw Jewel


I’d never heard of either Winifred Peck or her 1933 novel The Warrielaw Jewel prior to reading a favourable review by Curt Evans on the excellent Mystery File site. Curt has a deeply impressive knowledge of Golden Age fiction and his opinions are always soundly reasoned, so I was keen to seek out the book. Thanks to an excellent book dealer, Jamie Sturgeon, I’ve laid my hands on a copy and read it quickly.

Winifred Peck – who was to become Lady Winifred Peck – was a mainstream novelist who occasionally dabbled in crime fiction. She came from a remarkable family. Her niece is the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, and her brothers also achieved eminence. Ronald Knox was one of them, and he was a major Golden Age writer and founder member of the Detection Club.

The main events of The Warrielaw Jewel are set in 1909, and upper class society in Edwardian Edinburgh is well described through the eyes of Betty, an Englishwoman who has recently married a Scottish lawyer. Through him, she gets to know members of the somewhat dysfunctional Warrielaw family, whose prize possession is a ‘fairy jewel’. One or two aspects of the story reminded me of J.J. Connington’s The Dangerfield Talisman, but in this book, unlike Connington’s, murder is done.

The plot and prose are well-constructed. However, I felt that they were both rather ponderous, and I found myself longing for a bit of excitement. Even potentially dramatic scenes had a rather soporific feel to them. This book is interesting as an example of a novel written in the midst of the Golden Age that sought to be something more than a puzzle, and really is a study in character and setting. But despite Peck’s literary talents, I say: give me Agatha Christie every time!

16 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - Thanks for this review. You never fail to introduce me to writers I've not been familiar with before. I'm sorry that you found the book slow going, but I do enjoy being introduced to new-to-me authors.

George said...

I just finished reading some Christie short stories and marveled at her skill. Most readers focus on her novels, but there are treasures in her compendiums.

Todd Mason said...

Peck does sound familiar to me...probably because of her relation to Knox, I don't think solely because I'd also read Curt's piece...ah, well...give me a Sayers ahead of even a Christie.

John said...

For once a post about a writer I've never heard of. I wonder where on Earth Curt came across this old chestnut. And what did he find so intriguing about it? Was there a post about this at Mystery*File?

Enough questions. Here's an answer to your question, Martin, of last week. I own these Milward Kennedy titles: Half Mast Murder, Death in a Deck Chair, and the scarce Murderer of Sleep. Not read one of them. But one day... Also have the two "round robin" Detection Club books he contributed to Ask a Policeman and The Floating Admiral.

BV Lawson said...

I also hadn't heard of Winifred Peck prior to your review, Martin. Unfortunately, our local library doesn't have any of her books, but it sounds like they might be worth tracking down via the Web.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Yes, as Margot says, it is nice to hear new names even if they didn't set the world on fire.

vegetableduck said...

John, yes there's a long review by me on mysteryfile. The Warrielaw Jewel was a well-reviewed novel at the time.

Peck has been reprinted by a women's novel press. Perhaps this book will be added some day. The Warrieaw Jewel is not comparable to Christie works as a puzzle, but then few books are (including modern day ones). Christie set a very high standard in that regard.

I thought The Warrielaw Jewel compared well to works by authors like Anna Katharine Green and Mary Roberts Rinehart, to whom Peck seems to me to share certain qualities. There's a spaciousness and depth to the setting that I think we associate with Victorian/Edwardian crime fiction.

People who like those authors might well like The Warrielaw Jewel.

vegetableduck said...

Green should be.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks for these comments. I like to read obscure books of interest and some literary merit even where there may to some extent be a good reason for their obscurity!
John, the one I don't know is The Murderer of Sleep - good title!

vegetableduck said...

I place The Murderer of Sleep rather high among Kennedy's books. There may be a good reason for its obscurity, but I think adventurous admirers of Golden Age detective fiction might well enjoy it.

It's interesting that today so many people's reading of GA British crime novelists is confined to four Queens of Crime, only a small sliver of the writers back then.

I wonder who over the last forty years would make the cut if we were to limit the field to four writers? James, Rendell, Rankin and Mcdermid?

Then there's the period between, say, 1940 and 1960, where writers who became popular then seemingly are fast fading from public consciousness (it seems to me), such as Michael Gilbert, Andrew Garve and even Julian Symons himself. All good writers, however, deserving of something better than obscurity.

aguja said...

To a book less obscure .... I have just received your latest book via amazon and am looking forward to reading it. I shall let you know how I get on.

Martin Edwards said...

Curt, I'm afraid you're probably right about Gilbert and Symons and definitely right about Garve. Your top 4 Brits seem good to me - though I might include Reg Hill along with James and Rendell, and possibly Peter Lovesey.

Martin Edwards said...

Aguja, I'll keep my fingers crossed that you like it!

lyn said...

Persephone have republished Winifred Peck's fantastic domestic novel House-Bound set in Edinburgh during WWII. No murders but a very funny, realistic look at middle class life on the Home Front.

vegetableduck said...

That's the problem with defining popular genres in specific "ages" by four writers, as is so often done with the Golden Age detective novel. Good people get left out when this is done.

vegetableduck said...

Lyn, I alerted Persephone to this book because they had reprinted Lady Peck earlier. I notice on your own blog your current post is on Anna Katherine Green! Well, as I said, Peck reminds me somewhat of Green (though her language is more up to date).

Peck's effort to recreate an earlier period for her murder tale is pretty impressive, I think. John Norris also pointed out to me, which I think is true, that it's a pretty early such effort in a genre (it's really a "historical mystery").

Its mysteries unfold rather slowly, but then you could say the same thing of books by Barbara Vine, whose books also seem throw-backs to this style.

As an admirer of Peck's reprinted mainstream novel and Green, you would like The Warrielaw Jewel, I suspect.