Mother Paul

(creator: June Wright)

June Wright
Reverend Mother Mary St Paul of the Cross (usually known as just Mother Paul) is, in the first book, the Rectress (a word that does not even appear in my English dictionary) in charge of the nuns who run Kilcomoden, an Australian hostel for (mostly) young working women, five miles from Melbourne. By the second book, she has moved on to becoming Warden of a girls' hostel in Melbourne University.

Mother Paul "came gliding into the room with her inimitable carriage, as though the floor was sliding her along". Her face "was soft and unlined as a baby's, eyes bright and shrewd, but serene." She spoke in a "soft, rapid voice". For years she had working on a life of the foundress of her Order, and had accumulated piles of notes, but, in the first book, her real strength was in knowing just what was going on behind the scenes at her hostel. "Most people think she is vague and naïve, whereas she sees and understands things that go on under the surface better than anyone."

She makes a shrewd and imperturbable detective, who, in the first book, keeps herself very much in the background. But nothing seems to escape her attention.

June Wright (1919 - ?) was the Australian author of six detective stories, the last three featuring Mother Paul. Born in Melbourne, where most of her books are set, she had begun her writing career by winning a competition run by a London publisher. This ensured the publication of her first book, Murder in the Telephone Exchange in 1948. She herself had been working in a telephone exchange for four years. She was the mother of six children. Her last novel was published in 1966. She then retired from writing to help her husband with his business.

Reservation for Murder (1958)
Reservation for Murder is set in Kilcomoden, a business girls' hostel, run by an order of nuns led by Rectress Mother Paul. Annoying anonymous letters are being sent around, then a strange man is found murdered in the grounds. Later, this is followed by the apparent suicide of one of the girls. Is there some connection between these violent deaths? Mary Allen, one of the residents, and the woman who found the body, agrees to co-operate with the police in their strangely discreet enquiries and ends up putting her own life at risk. It is she who narrates the

The author writes in a gently entertaining way and is particularly good at describing the interplay, the constant bickering, and the friendships, between the various young women in the hostel, ranging from the nervous henpecked companion secretary Miss Jones (whose canktankerous old hypochondriac of a mistress also lives in a wing of the hostel) to the ever inquisitive and interfering Verna Bassett.

Only one of these, the callistenics instructor Clare, comes across at first as little more than a caricature. She says things like this to Mary: "Wizard! Played four sets (of squash), got a wonderful sweat up, showered off and came home. I'll sleep, like a top tonight. How about some tennis tomorrow, old thing?" She "had several mannish habits as well as diction". Her suggested cure for anyone showing any indication of an artistic temperament was "giving 'em double P.T. at the first sign."

When Mary comes across another resident, Alison, in one of her "nobody-loves-me" moods, she sees she is reading a detective story: "Funny the vicarious thrill you can get out of this sort of thing," Mary tells her. "I have often wondered how we would react if we had to face such startling events in real life."
Alison thinks she is being teased and tells her, "I get so miserable sometimes I feel like throwing myself in the river - truly I do." And it is not long before her drowned body is found in the river. And a third violent death follows.

Mary gets to know and like O'Mara, the investigating detective (and the bow-tied American undercover agent Joe, with whom he is working), and is invited to become his unofficial helper. "You won't have to do much," he tells her. "I merely want you to be my eyes and ears in Kilcomoden."
"Oh, is that all!" Mary said heavily.
It's all written with a nice sense of humour. It ends up with her having to let the two men into the hostel in the middle of the night - but it turns out that Mother Paul has been searching the basement too, and is busy organising things, so there is plenty going on - perhaps even including some involvement with drugs.

Finally, Mary, annoyed that she seems to have lost touch with the police, realises that "Even Mother Paul seemed to have lost interest". And it is then that things start to go seriously wrong for her - and she discovers that she was being "used as a sort of bait". It makes a gripping finish. And, as Mother Paul shrewdly tells her, "I know I don't have experience of such matters, but I could not help observing something odd about you and Mr. O'Mara." And with that sentence the book ends. It makes an entertaining read.

Faculty of Murder (1961)
Faculty of Murder is set at Brigid Moore Hall, a girls' hostel in the University of Melbourne, where "freshettes" are shocked by a new arrival, Judith Mornane, who announces that she intends to discover her sister's murderer. Her sister, Maureen, had mysteriously disappeared from the hostel the year before, at about the same time that a professor's wife had accidentally drowned. It is left to the newly arrived Warden, Mother Paul, together with Elizabeth Drew, the Humanities tutor, to draw the police's attention to possibilities they might not have considered.

This is the book in which Mother Paul (or Reverend Mother as she is now addressed) really comes into her own. No longer hiding herself in the background, she plays a leading part in the investigations. She may appear vague and ineffective, but Elizabeth Drew "felt the warmth of an unusual personality" and thought she would find her a delightful person to work with. She is much more of a real, decisive figure than in the first book. She keeps in contact with the police (even if she does not share all her theories with them) and keeps her own written record of everything that happens. She seems firmly in control. She even works behind the scenes to help bring Elizabeth's prolonged engagement to the hoped-for happy ending.

Unfortunately the plot is not too interesting and the melodramatic ending defies belief. But the author's sense of fun and ability to capture the interchanges beween the young women have not left her. When a bright young thing called Fiona hopefully promises Elizabeth Drew, "I'll be all conscientious and hard-working, a mixture of Heather and Monica", another student jokes, "Oh, don't let us down, Fiona! There's a bet on as to whether you'll become engaged again this year. How many fiancés have you had so far?"
" 'It's such a shame you don't take your studies as seriously as you should,' declared Heather virtuously. She had a round suety face, spotted here and there with moles like a raisin pudding. 'You know you have got brains, Fiona.'
'Boys are more fun than brains,' returned the other flippantly, tossing a muscatel into the air and catching it in her open mouth."

You cannot help feeling that even the author does not take her unlikely plot too seriously. As Miss Dove, a senior tutor puts it, any suggestion that the missing Maureen might have been murdered "belongs to the realm of fantasy or detective fiction". But then a drowned body is discovered and the newly arrived Judith goes missing too. Fiona tells her friends, "I know more than is good for my safety. Unbeknownst even to me I hold that small but fatal clue - the key to the whole mystery. What can I do to wrench it from my subconscious mind?" But she is only joking. As is the author. But it does not make for very exciting story-telling.

Make-Up for Murder (1966)
Make-Up for Murder is a book I have not been able to find. I have never even seen it listed.

There is hardly anything about the author on the web - but see her son's letter to my guestbook.

Her books are quite difficult to find, except in Australia. Make-Up for Murder seems to have disappeared entirely.

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Reservation for Murder cover
Faculty of Murder cover
The covers are nothing if not dramatic. The stories are quite entertaining, but the plots are not exactly convincing.
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