In certain key regards, there is much in Death Knell (1990) by Nicholas Wilde for the classic mystery fan to get excited about. Set outside the Norfolk village of Lychwood where “things go like clockwork…same things same time every day”, we have an isolated collection of houses on the grounds of an old family country pile that also comes with its own abandoned church. And, this being an isolated corner of England, the church naturally has a history and legend of its own: deconsecrated by Henry VIII and seemingly inhabited by something altogether more eldritch than the Mothers’ Union:
God has departed from His house, but where God is not, there shall another power enter in and take possession.
Thus read the suitably spooky records written by the priest at the time, and these words come to new significance when the legend is told — a legend of four deaths occurring in the old church “and always the same single stroke of the bell in a church that was locked and deserted. And nothing to show what had rung it…”
Thus are fourteen year-old Tim and Jamie introduced to the legend when visiting Tim’s grandparents in Lychwood. Wouldn’t you know it, Tim’s grandmother happens to be the caretaker tasked with sweeping out the empty church once a week and his grandfather the vicar of another church nearby, and at the very moment they learn of the legend — on a suitably grim and dark January evening — the church bell tolls out into the night, and the group who hurry up there to see what has happened find the doors locked and a dead body in crypt adjoining the nave of the church — a room that is not only locked and bolted from the inside, but against which a gigantic stone slab has been propped to further hamper any ingress or egress.
As setups go, not only is this delightful — you get a map of the grounds of the High House wherein this all takes place and a map of the church crypt to show how damn impossible the whole thing must be — it’s also superbly written. Wilde has a mostly light touch with atmospherics and imagery that pervades not just these opening pages but the entire book, from the eerie quality of the old high House itself…
In spite of the warmth here, the place looked cold. Too long for a sitting room; too dead. The cold deadness of hard leather armchairs and furniture heavy with oak. There was only one lamp, on a desk at the farthermost end. The lampshade was dark and two pools of light shone above and below, on ceiling and desktop.
…to summoning a sense of unease from even more supposedly comforting surroundings…
The [doctor’s] surgery…that was it. The words brought the smell out of hiding, gave it a name. Ether. He’d smelt it before, in the hospital-room where his grandad had died. The kitchen was just like it, the same strange mixture. Lavender and ether. Like a sickroom full of flowers…
…to a sense of not even being in control in the horror and madness that unfurls…
His eyes stared downwards, showing things to him, things he didn’t want to see.
…in this regard I can understand TC’s enthusiastic comparisons to the likes of John Dickson Carr and Derek Smith. There’s a creeping sense of dread and fear throughout, since it’ll be no spoiler to reveal that Tim and Jamie will go on to investigate and solve the murder, and their very palpable fear and discomfort is one of the true highlights of this book. Wilde is clearly an author of no small talent.
“Time for some dogs, I think.”
Cut to a year later, and Tim and Jamie return to Lychwood to find the mystery unsolved and everyone living under the pall of suspicion. The smallness of the community, and those rumours of eldritch happenings in the church from centuries back, have left the locals timorously irresolute and have aged Tim’s grandparents two decades in the intervening year, and so the two boys resolve to get to the bottom of things and, aided by three days of heavy snowfall that gives them an excuse to interview the locals under the guise of clearing pathways, they set out to do just that.
The handling of the investigation is, I feel, where a lot of YA novels live or die. In the reality they occupy, it needs to be believable that young ‘uns can succeed where adults failed, and since we’re coming in a full year after the original death, with a police investigation having stalled, we need to believe in the advantage Tim and Jamie have. And this is again handled superbly — clues are dropped with a refreshing subtlety, sometimes in dialogue, sometimes in prose, sometimes in the associations of memory that bring back events from the year before and then nag frustratingly at our sleuths’ minds until seen in the correct light (one in particular is a brilliant use of faulty memory to give meaning just beyond reach to an apparently significant action — ‘serious’ detective fiction authors should take note). Interviews take place in a realistic, naturalistic way, and Tim and Jamie manage to disagree, bicker, fall out, reconcile, and eventually piece it all together in a way that is mostly believable and feels in keeping with this version of reality.
It’s helped, too, by the precise era of this being unclear — it’s sometime between the invention of Scrabble and 1990 I suppose — since it plays out like a piece of classic detection: the discovery of the body is heightened by the fact that certain houses are incommunicado, and that no-one has a mobile phone or the ability to look stuff up on the internet rings very satisfyingly old school in how information is gathered and sifted. It’s a shame that more isn’t done with the snowfall beyond it providing motivation for the interviews to begin with, but I suppose one doesn’t wish to pack out a YA novel in quite the same way as one would for an older audience.
However, you’ll be wanting to know about that locked, bolted, sealed room murder.
I would, but for TC’s enthusiasm, have expected there to be — given the old church near the old house, and the history of Henry’s persecution of the clergy — have placed good money on a secret passage or a priests’ hole, and at about the halfway stage I would have appeared to have lost my money:
“What about a secret tunnel or something?”
“Oh, you can forget about the story-book stuff. The cops wouldn’t have missed a trick like that. Tey went over the place for a month with a fine-tooth comb. They weren’t born yesterday.”
As it happens, the eventual solution is…fine. One half of it contains some beautifully core principles of detective fiction, even if you do spot the culprit from the moment it’s clear something’s going on, and elements of why the body is in the room to begin with are nicely handled and explained with a clarity that — if we’re being critical — does make certain elements sound a damn sight easier than they’d actually be. But I’m not going to fault that, it’s all fun and games and no-one loses an eye.
The way the lockedness of the room is achieved, though, with the massive stone barring the door for extra confoundment, is, well, alarmingly prosaic. Unlike TomCat, I didn’t expect the previous deaths in the church to be explained, but I did expect the two sides of the problem — the body in the room and the tolling of the bell — to at least have a bit more to do with each other than proves to be the case here. There are also some vague threads left hanging — like the apparent impossibility of someone making a journey in ten minutes to then be able to make a phone call (since there are no phone boxes in the ground either), which is a beautifully subtle point and then simply gets swept aside with “Well, dunno, just happened, dinnit?” once the answer is reached (and this in a community where “you can’t scratch your armpit without hitting the headlines”…). But the wort is that the commission of the crime and the actions that need to be completed could be seen to be somewhat contradictory — you could possibly do them both, but given the care Wilde went into elsewhere, it’s either disappointing or telling that he becomes hand-wavey and vague here.
So, is TC wide of the mark? Well, forsooth, what else did you expect? But there’s a lot here to recommend this, and it’s certainly head and shoulders above many efforts at the novel of detection — never mind the narrower categorisation of the impossible crime — than a lot of the work done in the genre by far more highly-regarded names. The solecisms of the closing stages may prevent it from being a classic, but Death Knell is still an excellent, brilliantly written, creepy, atmospheric, intelligently clued, observant, playful, and hugely enjoyable novel that is to be highly commended to anyone who likes their classic-era detective fiction. Get a copy and get talking about it, because you’ve already read several books this year that don’t come anywhere close to this, and you deserve a good read in these trying times.