A couple of weekends ago, some Twitter posts from an arts and literature festival in Norfolk mentioning the 1980s crime novels of local author ST (Sylvia Theresa) Haymon were retweeted into my timeline and succeeded in piquing my interest. Upon further investigation I found that the first of the novels – Death and the Pregnant Virgin – was available in e-book format for just 59p, and for that sort of price it really did seem positively rude not to try it out.
In this story, a religious festival celebrating the recent discovery of the priceless Our Lady of Promise icon in the picturesque Norfolk country village of Mauthen Barbary is shockingly interrupted when one of the festival maidens is found bludgeoned to death in the shrine. She was also four months pregnant despite being a virgin, just the first of a series of revelations – and further deaths – to shake both the locals and Inspector Ben Jurnet.
The book feels distinctly old fashioned even allowing for the fact that it was written in 1980 – insert your own pun here about Norfolk being perennially 30 years behind the times at any given stage. Consequently it feels more like one of Agatha Christie’s vintage Miss Marple novels from the 1940s or 50s, with the suspects confined to an isolated rural community and the investigation very much revolving around means, motive and opportunities, which entails a lot of careful tracking of who was where and when with the more modern obsessions with forensics and DNA notably absent from consideration.
The prose has something of Christie’s sparse and elegant precision to it as well, making for a quick and concise read. Everything is carefully in its place throughout and most things nicely resolved and explained, although Haymon also has a penchant for leaving a few of the more miraculous events slightly hanging at the end in order to preserve a certain sense of awe and wonder. At the same time there’s also a surprisingly modern treatment of coarse language and matters of sex – very mild compared to what you’d find in books today of course, but nonetheless ever so slightly jarring to hear characters throwing in a casual F-word during conversations in the otherwise Christie-esque context.
Ultimately the mystery comes down to events that took place during the Reformation in Tudor England under King Henry VIII, and the key inspiration for the solution comes from a work of Ancient Greek translations. With its religious tinges and the reserved, stoic and well-read investigative hero this book therefore also reminded me of the earlier works of PD James (Death of an Expert Witness, Shroud for a Nightingale) and her long-running protagonist, the poet-detective Adam Dalgliesh. Jurnet himself is likeable company if a somewhat undistinguished figure in this first outing, lacking the wilder personality quirks you get from Christie’s Poirot and from so many of today’s crime series.
Fortunately there’s an interesting assemblage of suspects among the locals to keep one’s attention occupied and they’re presented with a lightness of touch and some gentle humour. All you need to guess the whodunnit is right there in front of you, but it’s carefully concealed and you’ll be doing well to figure out the guilty culprit as there are no obvious villains to be found, only smartly drawn and well-rounded characters. There are no “thrills” to be found as such, but the mystery should certainly keep you reasonably gripped until the identity of the killer and his-or-her motivation is revealed.
It’s fair to say that the book is never going to set the world alight, but for anyone who likes the Grand Dames of the golden era of cosy crime fiction then discovering a fresh source of quality tales in the same vein will be a delight, especially at these very agreeably low prices. The book is the first of eight crime novels written by Haymon featuring the character of Jurnet, and the second – Ritual Murder – was the winner of the Crime Writers’ Association Silver Dagger Award in 1982. I have every intention of getting that and of placing it high up on my ‘next book to read’ list for the very near future.
ST Haymon’s Inspector Jurnet books appear to be currently generally out of print but are available from Pan Macmillan as trade paperbacks and from Amazon.co.uk in Kindle e-book format.