I recently read six novels by Margaret Mayhew, after stumbling across her work in the back catalogue of Joffe Books (where I’ve been spending quite some reading time recently.) I thought they’d be worth taking a punt on, as they advertised themselves as village cozies, in that way modern kindle editions so often do, by slinging the words “cozy” “British” and “box set” into the title a few times. (They did, however, stop short of explaining how I’d feel about the book, or why I should read it, which is to their credit: I have an instinctive objection to THE OLD MILL BY THE RIVER THE TWIST-A-MINUTE WATER-ADJACENT THRILLER WHICH WILL GIVE YOU DISTURBED NIGHTS AND IRRITABLE LUNCHBREAKS and all that sort of thing, or THE GIRL WITH THE BOOK IN HER HAND THE MUST-READ GIRL-TITLED BOOK OF THE SEASON WHY AREN’T YOU READING IT EVERYONE ELSE IS YOU MUST FEEL LEFT OUT and so on. None of that sort of thing in this box set.) The first bunch were a quid for a set of four, and I expected to read a few chapters to see how Mayhew writes, maybe finish a single novel, and move on. Instead, what I found completely took me aback.
The novels focus on a character known simply as “the Colonel”. One character discovers his first name (Hugh), but everyone else – including the narrator – calls him by his erstwhile rank and nothing else. At the beginning of the first book he has retired and widowed for about ten years, and recently bought a dilapidated cottage somewhere in the West Country. (We later learn it is within shopping distance of Dorchester, and visiting distance of Bovington Tank Museum.) The book takes its time situating the Colonel in his new surroundings. There is an enjoyably wry couple of paragraphs on the jobs he picked up after leaving the army, including a longish but ultimately unsuccessful role as bursar at a private school, a couple of jobs being an elderly smartly-dressed gentleman in the background of photo adverts, and a few months in a telesales company who thought his accent would inspire confidence.
The former job raised a smile, as I remember the bursar at a school where my mother taught when I was a child being always referred to as “the Brigadier”. This highlighted something which appeared all through the early chapters: Mayhew seemed to have a much defter hand with, and a much keener sense of, British social history than most novelists in the “village cozy” subgenre. The way she introduced her characters, and sketched in their backstory reminded me strongly of P.D. James’ Cover Her Face and The Murder Room, or even the midcentury novelists beloved of Furrowed Middlebrow (a press beloved of me) – there was a touch of Marjorie Wilenski’s Table Two or Elizabeth Fair’s novels. For about twenty pages, I was under another misapprehension. The Mayhew novels were all from 1999 and after, and I thought I had found a twenty-first century crime novelist who could accurately write in the style of the late Golden Age. This would be a rarity indeed.
Of course, when I looked up Margaret Mayhew, she proved not to be this rara avis. Though possibly something even more interesting. She was born in the 1940s, and has been writing novels since the 1970s, but previously only worked in romance and sagas. (In fact I’m pretty sure I’ve seen a TV series based on her wartime-set novel Our Yanks at some point.) After a quarter of a century in the trade, she turned her hand to detective fiction, and produced the exploits of the Colonel in his rural village.
This explains something of the style and atmosphere of the novels, I think. Their particular tone makes sense if she’s a writer who lived through the postwar period with a sharp eye for social detail, thought and wrote about the war years, and then came to detective fiction after a subsequent generation had developed it during her lifetime. If that’s slightly muddled, parallels with two other crime novelists might help. Mayhew was the same generation as P.D. James, but whilst James was writing detective novels about the postwar years, and exploring how the Golden Age novel could (or couldn’t) make sense of the 1970s and 1980s, Mayhew was mostly casting her attention backwards into that war. Then Simon Brett appeared and wrote his “Mrs Pargeter” novels, consciously continuing the classic detective novel into an era when the Golden Age genre conventions didn’t make sense, and writing novels which pointed out the gaps between the social assumptions embedded in the midcentury novel and the world of the late twentieth century. Only then did Mayhew turn to the detective novel, writing as a member of a previous generation but writing in the contemporary cozy genre which defined itself against that generation’s work.
This is why I thought Mayhew was a twenty-first-century novelist with the intuitive skills of the midcentury. It’s also (I think) the root of two features which make Mayhew’s novels remarkable. They have a depth of social detail and sympathy which I haven’t often found in the contemporary cozy. Her characters are certainly recognizable social types, but she explores the way they inhabit their niches more extensively than most writers. This leads to some brilliant figures in the village. Naomi, the Colonel’s next-door neighbour, a widow who gardens obsessively and wears brightly-coloured tracksuits. Well, possibly a widow. Actually the bastard left her for his secretary some years before he died, but he is now dead and she was married to him, and people do give a certain respect to widows which they don’t to divorcées.
Or Miss Butler in the cottage opposite, always watching the street with the binoculars which used to belong to a U-Boat captain. She spent a largely unsuccessful career in the WRNS, never living up to her father the Admiral. Surviving on her meagre pension, since the Admiral left his money and medals to that naval museum: it is nice that they have his picture on the wall as a donor, but it did leave her rather hard up. The will didn’t mention the binoculars, so when they turned up in a drawer she kept them – and she does wonder how he got them in the first place, since he spent almost all the war behind a desk. Or Major Cuthbertson, whose wife is busy cooking some rubbish in the kitchen, which will probably end up being thrown away in favour of corned beef, to be fair to her she never needed to learn to cook before. But whilst she’s clattering the pans he can sneak the drinks cabinet open and close the lid before it plays more than a few notes of “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes” and alerts her. He wonders if the chaps in the regiment thought they were being funny when they chose that as a retirement present.
These characters reappear across the novels, and their foibles can become familiar to the point of recognizing the same jokes in more than one introductory chapter. This, I suspect is one of the risks of reading books in a few days which the author wrote across decades. But it also (to risk the mimetic fallacy) gives a sense of the small world of the village. The reader settles back into the place and its repeated little ways at the beginning of the every novel. People’s quirks do keep repeating themselves, and they do make the same jokes about the same subjects. But this probably is veering towards the mimetic fallacy (especially since I’m less willing to give Harlan Coben a pass when the same happens at the beginning of his novels.)
The second aspect is the novels’ pervasive combination of nostalgia and melancholy. The first book carries out a move recognizable from the “Mrs Pargeter” and “Fethering” novels by Simon Brett I mentioned above: the Colonel retires into a close-knit world which he has to find his way around whilst nursing his sense of personal loss, before coming to a realization that life still has new possibilities to offer. But when written by Mayhew the grief and tiredness which landed him in Frog End is more present to the reader. Not that the books are dramatic or gritty about his emotions. They’re just gently insistent on them.
Loss and the trickiness of finding a quiet but comfortable life surface frequently. In one sense this is marked by the opposite pulls which the Colonel has to resist: on one side his daughter who wants him to move back to London to be near her, take in shows and galleries and perhaps find a nice widow to cheer his later years, on the other his daughter-in-law who wants him to move to a bungalow near her, where she can take care of him and make sure none of those widows get their claws into him. The Colonel is insistent that neither life will do for him, but that leaves him alone in a village he doesn’t know. He and his late wife once visited it for a day, and planned to move somewhere similar once they came back to England, making her presence and her absence even stronger for him.
If I’m making them sound grim novels, they absolutely aren’t, and it’s possible to overstate the emotional notes. They are less strong than they are simply unresolved: the novels refuse (except on rare occasions) to stage scenes which prove that the past is behind everyone and the future, probably a sunny one, is all that matters. This emphasis on the past – not unreasonable in a genre concerned with uncovering the truth about events which have already happened – is extended into the mechanism of the plot.
Without wanting to give too much away, the whodunnit elements are also suffused with a concern for the past and its ambiguous presence. Closure is not a common feeling in the Colonel novels. One ends with a confession in private followed by a suicide, one by an accusation stalwartly denied by an untouchable killer, another by a deathbed confession of a story which the Colonel doubts, and another with a pretty sure sense of what happened but no desire to prove it. Along the way, the Colonel discovers family complications or suspicions of past wrongs which can’t be sorted out and may be best ignored. This needn’t stop the novels being enjoyed as straightforward puzzles: they do provide mysteries with clues, investigations and a solution at the end. But the way they present those stories keeps coming back to a vexed relationship with the past.
This means that the seam of Gothic which runs through so much classic detective fiction gleams in Mayhew’s novels too. The setting of one novel (when the Colonel visits Lincolnshire) is a rickety old family mansion which is now run by the last daughter as a bed and breakfast, with a deserted Second World War airfield in the adjoining grounds, built on lands requisitioned during the war and then handed back to the family. Most of the site is derelict, apart from the control tower which is preserved by volunteers. The novel centres on a bomber squadron reunion and memorial service, whilst the B&B also hosts a lady who is attending a Tudor re-enactment at the local Hall, and who insist on speaking cod-Elizabethan to everyone. This is a setting which seems designed to play off different notions of the past against each other, to explore what we want from history, and what we might find there.
The touch of Gothic can even veer into scenes which feel folkloric or enchanted. Another novel reconstructs the favourite past-time of a murder victim, who used to invite one or other of the local men to a deserted barn, then sit in the high hayloft pretending to be Rapunzel and telling them to climb the vertical ladder to get their reward. More subtle but similarly eerie is the victim whose mouth seems to be trying to say something to the Colonel, until he realizes what she must have been saying to her killer before she died. Mayhew has picked up on not only the social intricacy of the English countryside in the midcentury novel, but also (very occasionally) its sense of the weird and uncanny.
There’s one final aspect to Mayhew’s writing which caught my attention: her interest in things. This is such a common feature of crime writing, especially detective novels, that it might seem pointless to comment on it. But she is interested in how things happen and how things work to a much greater extent than most of the crime writers I’ve read. When the competitive flower-arranging in the parish church is mentioned, she provides a few sentences on exactly what flowers were regarded as the best and why. When the new vicar has trendy ideas about the services and taking out the pews, she summarizes why they might be good or bad ideas. A visit to the tank museum elicits half a page of military history. The restorative effect of gardening isn’t just asserted, it is presented by repeated discussions of flower varieties and different approaches to gardens. In a particularly striking moment, the Colonel is planning to make a rocking-horse, and searches different pieces of wood to find one for the head, looking for a grain going in the right direction and waving slightly, because that will give the effect of a horse’s hair and mane moving at speed.
In other words, Mayhew actually goes (briefly) into topics which a number of other writers would usually signal about. I can think of many authors who would make a reference to church ladies vying for each other over flowers, or to an old man and a boy bonding over a visit to a tank museum, or to the healing power of gardening. Mayhew, however, actually offers the reader a brief set of details, rather than immediately cashing out the idea in emotional or satirical value: church ladies are hypocritical, chaps like tanks, gardening is soothing. In a mild way, she gives the reader a chance to see why her characters care about these things, why they might be absorbing.
To risk the mimetic fallacy again, these are books which seem to value being interested in the details of things, because that is the way their characters manage to find contentment. A reader who wants fast-paced life, novelty all the time and solutions probably won’t enjoy these novels, and they wouldn’t be happy in the Colonel’s village either. An ability to relish repeated jokes, familiar traits, and “take an interest” in the details of things, would make life there much more appealing – and these are the sorts of pleasures which the books offer. They are, in their way, absolutely remarkable books.