It takes some time to become a good novelist. And honestly, it requires some mild success even with something less than a person being on the top of their form. This she had when her second Felse novel won the Edgar award. I know what it’s like to be praised for something before you’re really good at it, when it comes to writing. I’ve been there, and done that. There is then something reassuring in seeing Edith Pargeter=Ellis Peters work her way gradually to being a fine novelist.
We have already reported on the first volumes in his Inspect George Felse series on this blog, and spoke of the rather contrived nature of how the stories were resolved and the criminal caught. She already had her full powers of description, but improvements in the area of plot, dialogue, and character development were yet to come. Having already seen the promised land by reading all her Brother Cadfael stories first (from later in her writing career), I wondered when she would begin to put all the pieces together. I’m wondering any more. Novel 3 in this series is a crackerjack thriller full of tension, and it keeps you guessing about the who that committed the crime until nearly the very end of the story. I did manage to guess the right answer about two thirds through the novel, but then, I’ve been reading these sorts of novels for 50 years. Most important rule of these kinds of stories— it’s almost always going to be someone you have already been introduced to earlier in the novel, however briefly. Second rule of these sorts of stories, the so-called Sherlock rule— when you have eliminated all the other viable possibilities, whatever remains, however apparently improbable on the surface of things, is likely to be the correct answer to the whodunnit question.
‘The Flight of the Witch’ was published in 1964, and it reflects small village life in England at that juncture. The Downton Abbey era of indentured servants working and living in a great house was now well and truly in the past. There were still people employed in homes, especially large ones, but they came and went as employees, and usually lived elsewhere. The title of this 232 page novel is a bit of a misnomer, because the central character– a young raven haired beauty named Annet Beck is no witch, but her manner and beauty and innocence are such that she does bewitch, bother and bewilder various males of species, largely without intending to do so. It’s no fun to fall in love with someone you have little likelihood of winning the heart of. Unrequited love is a bittersweet thing, and it can indeed lead to all kinds of mayhem, as it does in Shakespeare, and in some of the stories of Ellis Peters as well.
This story differs from the first two novels in the series in several respects: 1) Dominic Felse, the precocious and perceptive son of Inspector George Felse, plays only a very minor and secondary role in the story; 2) in fact the story is not really told from the Felse’s point of view, but rather from the point of view of Tom Kenyon, a new schoolmaster and teacher in the little town of Comerford; 3) the novel has as its stimulus a very puzzling mystery from almost the outset. Annet Beck, a very closely kept and watched only child who is still school age (pre-college) suddenly disappears over the course of a long weekend a few days more, and then all of sudden she comes back into view on Hallowmount, the same hill where she was last seen walking, claiming that she thought it was still evening of the day she went out walking, a Thursday. Was she telling a lie? Had she fallen and developed amnesia? Had she been traumatized and was in shock? Or…. were the old stories about Hallowmount, with its association with witches, and it’s ancient altar up on the hill, true– stories about children disappearing, and then mysteriously showing back up later? Inquiring minds want to know. In other words, at the outset, this story beckons because it seems to be one part Harry Potter mystery, and one part normal murder mystery. Peters is careful to keep you guessing about these things for as long as possible to draw out the tension in the tale.
One of the keys to keeping the reader reading is to have interesting and complex characters, and if one or more of them are also likable, so you care about what happens to them, all the better. There are such characters in this novel, and as is also often the case, Peters throws in some eccentric British characters as well. The latter is the stock and trade of P.D. James novels which are so often populated by misanthropes, seriously mentally ill people, eccentric geniuses whose emotional life is stunted. Generally speaking Peters deals with much more normal people in her novels, whose worst traits is a desperate need to be loved, which sometimes leads to desperate actions.
One of the interesting psychological devices Peters employs in this novel is that she manages to portray Annet Beck as a sympathetic character chapter after chapter, but she turns out not to be an ingenue who is oblivious to her effect on men. Not only does she understand how her beauty effects men, she understands as well how bewitching is her personality too. The end result is that the character which one may have steadily been envisioning as a young victim in a man’s world, turns out to not be as innocent as she appears, in some respects. In other words, we find some complexity of character development here.
If you are looking for a good quick read that is fast-paced and interesting, and are wondering if you should try one of Ellis Peter’s Felse novels, I would commend this one to you. Each of her novels stand on their own two feet and have self-contained stories, but this one shows you what the series at its best is all about.