Chief Inspector Andrew Wilson Pearson of Scotland Yard (later a Deputy Commissioner) "might easily have been mistaken for a clergyman of the vanishing evangelical type". He was a "tall, stooping figure .... who looked incapable of pouncing on a clue or indeed of saying 'Bo' to a goose. That was perhaps the secret of his success; he never did say 'Bo' to a goose, but encouraged all geese and gander to hiss and crackle to their hearts' content. He was that rare thing: a philosopher who suffers fools gladly." His "saintly, contemplative look", sometimes incoherent speech, and frequent puzzled appearance concealed a "meek, patient shrewdness" and a bravery that had won him "well-deserved decorations" for his service in the war.
His resemblance to a clergyman may hardly be enough to justify his inclusion here as a clerical detective, but the novels he appears in are such fun to read that I had to include him. He and the Reverend Mother of the nunnery got on very well. When he told her that he thought he had blundered she "saw this was not a case to be dealt with a hurry; she sat down. This was her first discouraged policeman, but she knew all about discouraged novices with unerring instinct," so she had set about reassuring him. "It was rather like pumping up a tyre, she thought."
Together they made a very effective team.
R A(loysius) Eric Shepherd (1892-1955) was the son of Dr Ambrose Shepherd, a famous Free Church preacher. He was educated at Glasgow Academy and Christ Church College, Oxford. He was received into Catholicism while still at Oxford in the Church of St Aloysius - hence his adoption of this name. He was Professor of English Literature at the University of Malta for several years in the 1920s but did not like life abroad so returned home. In the 30s he was teaching in the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Roehampton.
He published several books of poetry and also Malta and Me, a memoir which caused some controversy amongst his fellow Catholics. His last two books (and only novels) are reviewed below. The first of these, Murder in a Nunnery, was selected by the Catholic Book Club in 1940 and reprinted in England and America. It was subsequently adapted into a play. Shepherd knew about nunnery life as both his sisters were nuns, one of them being a Mother Superior. He is described as a humorous and kindly person although, according to a contributor to The Tablet, "for the last 15 years of his life he was a sick and disappointed man".
He is not to be confused (as he is on the Amazon author page) with other authors also called Eric Shepherd.
Murder in a Nunnery (1940)
Murder in a Nunnery is set in Harrington Convent School run by a particularly shrewd and omniscient Reverend Mother. It is in their chapel that the body of trying old Baroness Sliema is found stabbed to death during daily mass. She had not only made enemies but, as Reverend Mother explains, "It was her hobby! Practice had made perfect. She had quarrelled with everybody in the house, including myself. I hate to speak evil of the poor woman, but there it was."
It is not long before Scotland Yard is called in and Chief Inspector Pearson arrives. He is impressed by the disciplined lives of the nuns and by the shrewdness of Reverend Mother, and tactfully pursues his enquires, discovering that a ghostly figure of a nun has been seen wandering the grounds at night. And he is soon on the trail of a possibly altered will, and, with the aid of his superior sense of smell, is finally able to reveal what must have happened.
The entertaining characters include pupils such as the irrepressible show-off Verity Goodchild and the flamboyant South American Inez Escapado, with reference to whom Reverend Mother explains to Pearson, "We have children from countries where stabbing is a ladylike and I believe very necessary social accomplishment." It is Inez who tells the appalled Pearson in her way over-the-top accent that in "de night of the Revoluccion, we are in the nursery, my bruzzers and sisters an' de little baby and I. Some of the Senores dey wish to make my fazzer very sorry, so dey come to kill all of us who are his little children. So we little children when we 'ear the Senores hiding in de hacienda, we also get ready our revolvers and daggers" and arrange a bomb over the door. "De senores dey do not expect de bomb and are very discontented when it fall down on them. But some are still alive, and dey come in .... so Jacquimo (her brother) kill zem wiz 'iz automatic-pistol which our Grandma give 'im at Christmas."
"A delightful touch!" Reverend Mother whispered aside.
Then, Inez explains, they "all go downstairs to play games".
But "by now the inspector had sat down again, and lay cataleptically in his chair. So this was a Convent school!"
Turtle the gardener (whose son is called Mock by the girls, though "why they called him Mock I do not know, for mock he never did, and I would 'a warmed him if he 'ad") tells Pearson, "I am one as never did hold with too much church-going. It may be a disability, but there it is. When the ladies says to me, "Why don't you come to church, Turtle?" I makes no reply, but I asts myself, What would the Lord want with Turtle for ever getting under 'is eye? I ain't denying as God made me, sir, but so in a manner of speaking did I make my son Mock with a bit of 'elp from Mrs Turtle; but because I made my son Mock, sir, do that mean to say as I wants to see him for ever underfoot and hanging around like?"
It is all written with real humour, as when the very first chapter heading reads, "Verity is late, and so, in another sense, is the old baroness." After calmly and briefly informing the school of the tragedy, the Reverend Mother handed over to Father Witherstick, S.J. who gave them "a long instruction on an abstruce point of doctrine. Many of the children fell fast asleep, which was exactly what Reverend Mother had aimed at." The local police had got off to rather a bad start with the nuns and it was not long before the bossy Detective-Sergeant Osbert found himself "shut up in an ugly little parlour under the compulsion of a peremptory little nun about the size and general figure of cock-robin." It was a truly hideous place "designed to break the contentious spirit of visiting parents".
Even Pearson's arrival is not without its problems: "A constable rang the Convent bell for his chief, and so was the first to receive the death-charge of Mother Peck's eye. Though he staggered back a pace or two, he rallied gallantry with a propitiatory salute.
'Excuse me, Mum; but is this the Convick of the Inacurate Deception?'
It is possible that the officer meant 'Immaculate Conception'. Whatever he meant, this description of her religious home greatly scandalised and alienated Mother Peck.
'Certainly not!' "
Yet his treatment of the nuns is understanding and sympathetic. Indeed it was partly because of the author's feeling that nuns were being unfairly portrayed in recent fiction that he wrote the book. As Pearson tells Reverend Mother soon after his arrival, "The idea current in the world I confess, shared by myself until today is that nuns are disappointed people; misfits, so to speak; emotional failures, shirking life and its problems.`
Reverend Mother spoke very softly. "And now?"
The inspector sprang to his feet and answered with energy. "I find them more in the nature of Big Game Hunters ...."
He got no further, for Reverend Mother had positively clapped her hands. Her face was alive with pleasure. "That is a delightful compliment, Mr Chief Inspector. It puts heart into us."
Later on it is she who points out to him, "Religion has always been likened to military service, and it is to strong and militant souls that its profession appeals. Do you know that nuns are among the most adventurous of mankind? They have gone all around the world and into its worst places. They are to be found were only priests have the courage to go with them."
Of course, we don't have to take the plot itself too seriously, but as one of the "Ribbons" (prefects) points out to another, "It's too thrilling to be actually living inside a thriller." It's fun for the reader too.
More Murder in a Nunnery (1954)
More Murder in a Nunnery takes place exactly two years after the events described in the previous book, although it was published six years later. More strange events are occurring at Harrington Convent of the Immaculate Conception, where the same Reverend Mother Peagle is still firmly in charge. Andrew Pearson, however, has been promoted and is now Sir Andrew Pearson, Deputy Commissioner of Police at Scotland Yard.
It is another amusing lightweight story, that starts with the discovery of a dead body on top of Mr Turtle's rubbish dump that is wrapped in brown paper. Fortunately, as Mother Assistant points out, it is not one of their students but "only a man". It is she who has to report the discovery to the local police but "telephoning always made Mother Assistant nervous, and when she was nervous her voice and manner reverted to that long line of military ancestors, including a field-marshal or two, of which she was sprung." The result was that down at the police station the sergeant, who had been in the Army, knew it must be an officer and an officer on whom he did not hesitate to confer field rank, and insisted on addressing her throughout as "Sir".
In the end it all turns out to be part of a plot by foreign agents to kidnap the glamorous foreign student, Inez Escapado, whose father is the ruler of Anaconda in South America, where the locals "through living so much in the jungle, have developed some faculties not possessed in the same degree by others. They can climb like monkeys. They can see in the dark. They are thoroughgoing." What they aren't, of course is politically correct!
All the pupils, including the irrepressible 17-year-old Verity Goodchild (who was "a born sleuth" and had at last been made a Blue Ribbon (prefect) at the request of the other girls), are lively creations, as are the nuns. Most interesting of all is Reverend Mother and it is she who finally able to track down Inez when she goes missing. Pearson himself has little detective work to do but his men are able to fight off a deadly armed attack on the convent that involved "quick-firing guns and some sort of stupefying gas and actually a small bomb was exploded in, of all places the chapel and fire broke out". Luckily, though, Mother Peck the gatekeeper, was not going to be dislodged from her rightful place and "rushed up on the intruders with flying veil and beat down the muzzles of their guns. "This is too much, what you mean by such conduct? A gang of great naughty boys trying to frighten people! You ought to be birched ....".
At one stage, Pearson "pushed actually pushed, Reverend Mother to the door. Then he turned, and with his ebony cane beat down the deadly South American snake which reared itself, furiously hissing .... 'I do beg your pardon, Reverend Mother,' he said, 'for pushing you.' " This sort of quiet humour occurs again and again throughout the book, as when Sir Clement de Willoughby of the Foreign Office is amazed to find that one of the nuns has managed to translate a vital message written in Anacondan. "And what, if I may ask," Sir Clement asked Reverend Mother, "does this prodigy of yours, this woman who can learn Anacondan in a week, do with herself in a general way ?"
"Oh, Mother McVehoy? Well, she takes all the senior French --"
"Schoolgirl French! A woman like that! Why, she ought to be a professor in a university --"
"Well," said Reverend Mother, "she was."
it is another thoroughly enjoyable read.
At first sight there seems nothing about the author on the web but see the Pretty Sinister Books and The Tablet sites.
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