Ellis Peter’s The Piper on the Mountain

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The fifth novel in the Felse mystery series features Dominic alone, without any assistance from his father George. It also features something quite different from the first four novels in the series— a mystery set in Slovakia! Writers of course, if they are wise, are supposed to write what they know, and if you haven’t done your homework, you might be forgiven for thinking Ellis Peters had violated this rule in this novel. But she didn’t. In 1947 Peters, whose real name was Edith Pargeter, visited Czechoslovakia and became fascinated by the Czech language and culture. In fact, she became fluent in Czech and published translations of Czech poetry and prose into English that won awards. And so the many beautiful descriptions of the mountains and valleys of Slovakia come from her own experience in 1947.

This novel, like its immediate predecessor, is exactly 192 pages long, and is a very quick read indeed. The catalyst of the story is summarized on Amazon as follows—-“When Herbert Terrell falls off a mountain during a vacation in Czechoslovakia, accidental death is the verdict. Then his step-daughter Tossa receives a note suggesting Terrell was murdered–turning Tossa’s long-planned European holiday with college friends into a hunt for the killer.”

Besides beautiful descriptions of the scenery where the novel is set (it does briefly mention Prague in passing but otherwise is set in the Slovakian mountains), the novel reflects the more mature skills of Peters in concocting a good novel. This one appeared first in 1966, and is far more skillfully rendered than the first two in the series. One of the more interesting features in the novel is the sympathetic portrait of the Slovaks and Czechs, even though this novel was written during the Cold War era, and plays that whole factor into the novel. What did happen to Herbert Terrell? Did he die due to states secrets he had knowledge of, or was his death a mere accident? And what of the subsequent death of a man who went looking for Charles Alda a former employee of the secret Institute in his homeland? In some ways this novel will remind one more of the George Smiley novels about spying, than the other novels in the series, and it is also a novel that sets out from London and involves a secretive Institute there, and so one is also reminded of some of P.D. James novels as well.

Dominic Felse in the novel has grown up, is a mature young man with a steel trap for a mind, and it will not let him leave a mystery unsolved. There is also a bit of romance in the offing for young Dominic, but that is not the focus of the novel. Finding out what happened to Terrell and then another man is, and finding Alda in the balance is quite enough for one brief novel. It’s a fun read, and to some extent keeps you guessing to the end.


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