Looking for a pretty sure recipe for disaster? How about this one? Start with an old Scottish family, the Warrielaws, living in and near Edinburgh - a family still quite prominent, but definitely running out of cash. Add a healthy dose of hatred, for most of the family members hate and despise their relatives, even the ones they're living with. Maybe especially the ones they're living with. Add the family mansion and estate, which is literally falling apart, as there is little or no money for repairs. Mix in a strong-minded family chief - a female, I should add - who is determined to do everything her own way, whether her relatives like it or not. And don't forget a fabulous and famous jewel, by far the most valuable thing they own - or at least that they own until the family head sells it, probably to Americans.
Like that mix? Then you'll probably want to find out what happens when that rather potent brew of hatred mixed with contempt and just a touch of greed reaches the boiling point. You'll find it in The Warrielaw Jewel, by Winifred Peck. It's a classic Golden Age of Detective Fiction book, written by an author better known for so-called literary fiction than for mysteries, and it's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the complete review by clicking here.
The Warrielaw Jewel was written in 1933, but its narrator, Betty Morrison, the wife of the Warrielaw family's legal advisor, explains that she is writing about her memories of events that took place some 20 years earlier, on the eve of what we now call the First World War:
This story of mine is now I suppose historical. My own children apply the term to that period, so far away from modern youth, when King Edward VII lived, and skirts were long and motors few, and the term Victorian was not yet a reproach…Edinburgh was not in those days a city, but a fortuitous collection of clans. Beneath a society always charming and interesting on the surface, and delightful to strangers, lurked a history of old hatreds, family quarrels, feuds as old as the Black Douglas.
That description quite aptly fits the members of the Warrielaw family. There’s Jessica, who has legal authority over the estate. There’s Jessica’s rather weak sister Mary, and their niece, Rhoda, who is a business woman, and Rhoda’s young ward, Alison, and another niece named Cora and a nephew, Neil. I’ll stop before you start drowning in a sea of names here, but suffice it to say that each of them detests at least one or two of the other family members.
And then there’s the fabulous Warrielaw jewel, a tremendously valuable stone. Jessica – who, as I said, acts as the head of the family – wants to sell the jewel. The other family members do not, but Jessica has legal control and is determined to sell it and turn over the proceeds to her nephew Neil – a prospect which horrifies the rest of the family.
But then the Warrielaw jewel disappears. And so does at least one of the family members. And it doesn’t take long for the petty grievances to escalate into murder.
The Warrielaw Jewel is one of just two mysteries that Winifred Peck wrote during the course of a long writing career, one spent mostly writing literary fiction. But it's good enough, and unusual enough, to warrant being brought back into print - and, in fact, the Dean Street Press has just reissued the book (and sent me an e-book version for this review). This edition features an introduction from mystery historian Martin Edwards with more information about the author and her career. It's worth your time and effort.