Winifred Peck’s Crime Novels

Winifred Peck came from an astonishingly gifted family. Her brothers included Ronald (detective novelist, Sherlockian, creator of the famous Decalogue, and much else besides), Dillwyn (code-breaker supreme) and Evoe (editor of Punch and author of a superb parody of the detective story, “The Murder in the Towers”). Not surprisingly, perhaps, her own achievements seem to have been somewhat overshadowed by theirs. Yet she had a long and successful career as an author, demonstrating considerable versatility over the course of roughly half a century. She published a life of Louis IX in 1909, when she was 27, and turned to writing novels in her late thirties. Most of her books can be described as “mainstream” fiction, often written with a light touch that has drawn comparisons with the work of E.M. Delafield and Angela Thirkettle. When she died in 1962, The Times said that “she showed a marked talent for sharp characterization, amusing dialogue and an ability to condense a life history into the minimum number of words.” But for many years it was more or less forgotten that her output included two detective novels. Happily, last year they were made available again by that enterprising publisher Dean Street Press; I was asked to write an introduction to the books, and this article is a reworking of that introduction.

The Warrielaw Jewel and Arrest the Bishop? are detective novels that demonstrate the quiet accomplishment of her writing, but there are obvious explanations for her failure to make a lasting impact as a crime writer. The books appeared more than a decade apart, and she made no attempt to write a series, or create a truly memorable sleuth.

The Warrielaw Jewel was first published in 1933, but the events of the story take place in the era “when King Edward VII lived, and skirts were long and motors few, and the term Victorian was not yet a reproach”. Thus the novel represents an early example of the history-mystery, a fashionable sub-genre today but much less common at the time that Peck was writing. The setting is Edinburgh, which “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. Nor were the clans united internally, except indeed at attack from without. Often already my mother-in-law had placidly dissuaded me from asking relations to meet, on the ground that they did not recognise each other.”

The story, narrated by the wife of the legal adviser to the Warrielaw family, encompasses such classic Golden Age elements as murder, a trial, a valuable heirloom, and a mysterious curse. The quality of Peck’s prose lifts the book out of the ordinary, and in a review on the Mystery * File blog in 2010, Curtis Evans argued that it is “an early example of a Golden Age mystery that, in its shifting of emphasis from pure puzzle to the study of character and setting, helped mark the gradual shift from detective story to crime novel.”

Pleasingly, Peck makes use of one of the game-playing devices popular with Golden Age novelists, a formal “challenge to the reader”, at the end of the twelfth chapter:

“STOP

THIS IS A CHALLENGE TO YOU. At this point all the characters and clues have been presented. It should now he possible for you to solve the mystery.

CAN YOU DO IT? Here's your chance to do a little detective work on your own-a chance to test your powers of deduction. Review the mystery and see if you can solve it at this point.

Remember! THIS IS A SPORTING PROPOSITION, made in an effort to make the reading of mystery stories more interesting to you. So-don't read any further. Reach your solution now. Then proceed.”

The author most closely associated with explicit “challenges” of this kind was the American Ellery Queen, but the device was also employed by a range of British detective novelists, including Anthony Berkeley, Milward Kennedy, and Rupert Penny. It was a way of making explicit the fact that the whodunit essentially involved a battle of wits, dependent on the author “playing fair” by supplying (although often disguising) the clues to unravel the puzzle.

Having entered so wholeheartedly into the spirit of Golden Age detective fiction, Peck promptly deserted the genre, and did not return to it until after the Second World War, by which time tastes in crime writing, as well as much else, were changing fast. Arrest the Bishop? appeared in 1949; set in a Bishop’s Palace, the story made excellent use of her first-hand knowledge of ecclesiastical life. This is another history-mystery, written in the aftermath of one world war, but relating events set in 1920, not long after the end of another. As a bonus, the book is also an example of that popular sub-genre, the Christmas crime story. The murder victim is, as so often in traditional whodunits, an unscrupulous blackmailer, and again Peck makes use of tropes of Golden Age fiction such as a timetable of key events, and a list of prime suspects itemising their respective motives, opportunities for committing the crime, and instances of their “suspicious behaviour”. Even at the time of the book’s publication, it must have seemed a little old-fashioned, but Peck’s gentle humour ensures readability, and in the twenty-first century the book has added appeal as a portrait of a vanished age.

Winifred Frances Knox, born in 1882, was the third of the six children of the fourth Bishop of Manchester. She had an older sister, Ethel, as well as four brothers. Winifred shared, The Times said, “her brothers’ lively wit and sharp minds, and was well able to hold her own in the complicated verse games they played among themselves. It was the family custom to spend the summer holiday in a furnished house, generally a rectory, where they amused themselves tracing the life of the absent incumbent as revealed in the photographs that were hung about his walls. In such stimulating and imaginative company she had every inducement to become a writer, where much of the material the novelist needs lay to her hand.” In almost any other family, Winifred’s record as a high achiever could not possibly be eclipsed, but such was the brilliance of her quartet of brothers that even her niece, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Penelope Fitzgerald (whose father was E.V. Knox), made only fleeting mention of Winifred in her book The Knox Brothers.

Winifred was among the first forty pupils to study at Wycombe Abbey School, and proceeded to read History at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. In 1911, she married James Peck in Manchester Cathedral. James, described by Penelope Fitzgerald as “a small, quiet, reliable, clever and honourable Scotsman”, was at the time Clerk to the School Board in Edinburgh. (In fact, Penelope says that the wedding took place in 1912, but a present day member of the family tells me that this was a mistake; ah well, even the most diligent researchers get things wrong). The couple had three children, and James became an increasingly influential figure in both local and central government ; when he was knighted in 1938, Winifred became Lady Peck.

By the time Winifred Peck died, her detective fiction had already been forgotten. It was not even mentioned in her obituary in The Times. This is rather typical of the way in which Golden Age detective novels were regarded (even, sometimes, by their own authors) after the Second World War: they often seem to be considered not worth bothering about. But present day readers of the books will, I think, agree that this is a pity. Peck was no Agatha Christie, but she wrote well, and her contribution to the genre, although modest, is worth remembering