I have to confess to a weakness for as many good old-fashioned country house murder mysteries as I can lay my hands on. One of my favorite mystery movies is Gosford Park, in which writer Julian Fellowes and director Robert Altman take this old warhorse of a subgenre and lend it a dimension rarely seen in works of cinema or print.
You could call Gosford Park a tribute to the country house mystery, though it’s much more than that. Also in the tribute category, a trilogy (of sorts) by one James Anderson. In his lifetime, which ended in 2007, Anderson wrote numerous books, many in the crime and mystery genre, but his minor fame these days mostly rests on these three books. The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy (1975), The Affair of the Mutilated Mink (1981), and The Affair of the Thirty-Nine Cufflinks (2003) were all published some decades after the heyday of the country house mystery, but recall earlier times.
Each of these volumes is set during the country house mystery heyday—the 1930s. Nearly all of the events play out at the estate of one George Henry Aylwin Saunders, the twelfth Earl of Burford. In contrast to many of the rich, titled chaps who turn up in these kinds of books, the Earl is actually a pretty decent guy. About the worst you could say about him is that he’s a bit scatterbrained and perhaps even downright clueless in certain key areas of life experience.
The other regular players in the cast are the Earl’s wife, who’s a rather more formidable figure than her husband, and their daughter Geraldine. Gerry is something of a party girl, though she seems to be in recovery from this phase of her life. She’s actually quite clever and fancies herself to be an avid amateur detective, though this avocation doesn’t always play out so well. Also on hand throughout is Merryweather, a butler who is the very model of propriety, but who breaks out of this mold on rare occasions, usually to mildly comic effect.
Probably the most noteworthy cast member is Inspector Wilkins, who works with his decidedly more down to earth sidekick, Sergeant Leather. Though he appears to be a blundering dunce and displays a staggering lack of confidence in his crime-solving abilities, as the books progress readers discover that the Inspector might not be exactly what he seems. Anderson utilizes these qualities to particularly interesting effect in The Affair of the Mutilated Mink, when an arrogant detective is called in from Scotland Yard to solve the case and...well, it’s almost worth reading the book just to see how that all plays out.
In the last book of the series Anderson actually gives a time frame to the three outbreaks of crime that take place at Alderley, the family’s estate. They occur in just over a year’s time and leave the Earl, who’s not so keen on country house weekends in the first place, very discomfited. While it’s best to read the three books in order (and there’s a convenient omnibus edition floating around that can help with this) it’s not a requirement.
As I’ve said in reviews of these books at my own site, trying to sketch the plots of Anderson’s books is a tall order, given that they’re very intricate and brimming with twists and turns. To put things in a nutshell, one could summarize The Affair of the Bloodstained Egg Cosy by saying that the Earl’s brother is conducting delicate political negotiations at Alderley, while the Earl himself is entertaining a fellow gun collector. If you’re thinking that bringing together a pair of gun collectors sounds like a recipe for mayhem, well, you may be onto something.
Picking a favorite Anderson book is like choosing a favorite child, but if I were pressed I’d probably go with The Affair of the Mutilated Mink, which does everything Anderson does so well but just a little more so than the others. This time around the theme is cinema, of which the Earl has recently become an avid fan. Of course, he’s quite delighted when a contingent of Hollywood types arrive to scout out Alderley for use in an upcoming film. A murder breaks out and the plot thickens considerably, even by Anderson’s standards. While I’m not as well read in the genre as I’d like to be I think I’m safe in nominating Mink, hands down, for best use of a motorcycle in a work of mystery fiction.
It was a couple of decades more before The Affair of the Thirty-Nine Cufflinks saw the light of publication and this one mixes up the formula just a bit. This time around the gathering at Alderley is of concerned parties who have come to hear the reading of the last will and testament of one of the Earl’s elderly relatives. It should probably go without saying that things don’t go so smoothly and it’s not long before Wilkins and Leather are called upon to bring order to the proceedings.
Thus ended the saga of Alderley, sadly, though there are rumors floating about that there was a fourth book left unfinished at the time of Anderson’s death. Whether anything will come of that remains to be seen. Whether anything should come of it is another matter entirely.