An aristocratic British family, in the years just after World War I. A country manor home in a small English village named Dovecote Hatch. A staff of more or less devoted house servants below-stairs, headed by a smart and feisty housekeeper. A great number of family secrets. And murder. A couple of them, in fact.
Sound like the ingredients for a good classic mystery from the Golden Age of British detective fiction? Not quite. What you have is Murder at Mullings, a brand-new mystery along traditional lines by Dorothy Cannell, published by Severn House. It's available now in the UK, but I believe it is scheduled for release in the US on May 1. That's the day before this year's Malice Domestic conference opens, a conference which will be presenting Dorothy Cannell (and Margaret Maron) with Lifetime Achievement Awards.
As I hadn't read any Dorothy Cannell books, I asked Severn House if I could see a copy of Murder at Mullings, and they graciously provided me with a review copy. I'm glad they did - it's really quite well done. It is billed as being the first in a new series from Cannell featuring Florence Norris, the housekeeper at the estate known as Mullings. Smart, efficient, and deeply tied to the aristocratic (but hopelessly dull, as far as their neighbors were concerned) Stodmarsh family, Mrs. Norris does what she can to help and protect the family. She witnesses what she is pretty sure is a murder - though she cannot prove it - and, some years later, finds herself caught up in another case of murder within the family. Because of her position in the household, she finds herself able to work with the police to see past a fair number of red herrings and find the real culprit.
Oh, and did I mention the ornamental hermit, whose presence is critical to the story? And what, you may ask, is an ornametal hermit? An ornamental hermit is a person hired to add a certain amount of color and drama to an aristocrat's estate. The aristocrat would provide food and a hut somewhere on the grounds for shelter. According to the description in Murder at Mullings:
"Essential requirements for an ornamental hermit included never cutting his hair, beard or nails, and upon leaving his shelter he meandered with his head bowed above an open Bible. The very air around him was steeped in saintly melancholy. It was a delightful fillip for house guests to espy him amidst the groves or by a woodland stream, as it was incumbent on him to ensure they did."
Yes, there really were such people. There's a great deal more to learn about ornamental hermits in general and about Mullings and Florence Norris too, for that matter, not to mention a couple of nasty murders. If you like traditional mystery plots with - forgive the word - "cozy" atmospherics, you'll find Dorothy Cannell's Murder at Mullings quite an agreeable way to pass an evening. I'm looking forward to hearing her speak at Malice Domestic in May.