Poor Bill Fent. He was doing a favor as a courtesy to one of his dinner guests who had wound up stranded after dinner and needed a ride home. Bill drove him home all right, but on his way back he was involved in a crash that pretty well destroyed both his car and himself, not to mention the badly hurt driver of the other car. It was a terrible accident; Bill never had a chance.
Actually, that last statement is quite literally true. The autopsy, performed to determine the exact cause of death, was quite clear: if Bill Fent hadn't died in that crash, he would most certainly have died at home in his own bed before morning, thanks to what appeared to be a massive amount of poison in his system - poison which must have been given to him somehow by one of the eleven guests who joined Bill for dinner that night at his house. That was going to be a problem for Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan, of the Calleshire County police, who would have to determine not only who, but how - and, perhaps most baffling of all, why someone had wanted to kill Bill Fent.
The answers to those questions will be found in Slight Mourning, a fairly early entry in Catherine Aird's marvelous "Calleshire Chronicles" series of mysteries featuring Sloan and other members of the police force in the fictional English county of Calleshire. Slight Mourning is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the full review by clicking here.
Catherine Aird wrote the first of her Calleshire Chronicle mysteries in the mid-1960s and her most recent - so far - was published just two years ago. Slight Mourning was published in 1975. Her books are more-or-less police procedurals, but with distinctly Golden Age - type traditional elements. The key characters are Detective Inspector C. D. Sloan - known as "Seedy" to his friends, Detective Constable Crosby, whose "assistance" to Sloan is highly debatable (Crosby is known behind his back as "the defective constable"), and their boss, Superintendent Leeyes, who serves mostly as a comic foil for Sloan. The Superintendent takes all sorts of night self-improvement classes and then torments his staff with his misinterpretation of most of the things he learns.
Slight Mourning begins with the funeral for Bill Fent. Sloan and Crosby attend the funeral, and their presence does not go unnoticed. When the dead man’s widow, Helen, hears that Sloan and Crosby had attended the funeral, she faints dead away. When revived, she insists on locking herself into her room at home, and she refuses to see anyone. The implications are clear: she is plainly terrified and clearly knows something more than the police know – but what? Is she locking herself in her room because of what she knows about her husband’s death – or because she fears for her own life? For, as best as the police can tell, it would have been very difficult if not impossible for the murderer to know whether the poisoned food would reach Bill…or Helen.
It will take considerable digging on Detective Inspector Sloan’s part to uncover a motive for murder and an opportunity for a murderer who will not hesitate to kill again in order to keep himself – or herself – safe. There are more than enough suspects – and potential motives – to quite effectively misdirect that reader. Slight Mourning is a pleasant diversion.
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Rich Westwood, who blogs at the Past Offences blog, has been collecting reviews this month of books published in 1975. As Slight Mourning was published in that year, I'm submitting the review to Past Offences as well. You might check out the 1975 sign-up page for a lot of additional mysteries published that year!