The Wyndham Case – Jill Paton Walsh

I’ve not been very well the last few days, so I decided to read something comforting and cheering… so of course what does one pick but “murders”? I do find detective fiction very relaxing though, it has to be said. I suppose I don’t get as invested in it as I do SFF. Anyway. I’d been lent the Imogen Quy Mysteries, of which this is the first, on the promise they were good, backed up by the discovery that the author finished off the incomplete Peter Wimsy novel after Dorothy L. Sayers passed away… and well, if she was good enough for that… Pleasingly, she was very much in that tone, and exactly the sort of thing to read on the sofa under a blanket.

Much of what’s being done here is pretty stock detective fiction; there’s nothing really I haven’t seen before. But it’s been very well put together, and despite being not exactly innovative, it is rather clever. It manages to achieve what a good mystery should, which is the feeling at the end that you should have been able to work it out yourself from the clues you got along the way… but didn’t. I got part of the way there, of which I’m quite proud, but I didn’t manage to tie in the other half of the mystery, alas. It also manages to give you a rather complex problem and solution but without it feeling laboured, forced or contrived to get you there. Yes, there are a lot of strands to the problem, but they’re all handled with care and precision so it never feels like an impenetrable muddle, either to the main character or to the reader.

Particularly well done is the way the two halves of the mystery are dealt with. Of course, you as the reader know they will eventually come together, because you’ve read a detective story ever before and you know how these things work. But I kept on not seeing how they were going to fit together until I started to wonder that maybe they wouldn’t… and then of course they did. And that moment of doubt was lovely, because I don’t necessarily want complete, comforting certainty… there has to be a bit of a mystery. And there was.

Add to this that Imogen Quy is just a really enjoyable detective. Of course I was always going to like her – no-nonsense, red-headed, determinedly independent and based in Cambridge in the mid-twentieth century – but it’s nice to have a character doing the mixture of common sense smartness and intellectual smartness and doing so well. There are a few contrived moments where the police disdain the latter and the university people the former, but in Imogen at least they seem well balanced.

The background/supporting characters are a little less successful, especially with her police contact/friend being the sort of corner-cutting semi-maverick (think DS Bacchus in early Inspector George Gently) that I don’t get on with… but they are all rather pushed into the background by Imogen. What few there are do at least get a good, solid cast of interesting women, from the worried but good-hearted student Fran to the forceful personality of the master’s wife, Lady B, and it does feel like both of these at least might get more of a showing in later novels. Though I suspect they will always pale in comparison to Imogen, and this sort of detective fiction isn’t always big on putting a lot of time into character development anyway.

But I don’t really mind. It’s part of the genre, really. And The Wyndham Case is a thoroughly excellent example of the genre, in a lovely setting (that admittedly appeals to me specifically, being a Cambridge college and all) which it knows and handles very well indeed. It does what it sets out to do very well, and it was exactly what I expected and wanted it to be.

The books are all short, which is a little of a shame, but I think at least in this one the brisk pace and general lightness are a plus, so perhaps a longer novel would undermine the neatness of the story.

Overall, it definitely occupies the niche I want in my detective fiction, about which I may be a touch on the picky side. But this, the Peter Wimsy novels and the Sidney Chambers mysteries are absolutely it, and I shall definitely continue reading.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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