Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A Lady Croftster: Death of an Old Girl (1967), by Elizabeth Lemarchand

Elizabeth Wharton Lemarchand, daughter of Anthony Wharton Lemarchand and his wife Ethel Agnes Clark, was born on October 27, 1906 in Barnstaple, Devon.  She passed away, at the age of 93, in Exmouth, Devon in 2000 and was buried at Topsham Cemetery, Exeter.  Coming late to writing crime fiction, she published her first detective novel at the age of 60 in 1967.  This novel, Death of an Old Girl, became, however, the first of seventeen detective novels by her hand, the last of which, The Glade Manor Murder, was published in 1988, when she was 81.  With the deaths in the 1980s of Ngaio Marsh, Gladys Mitchell, Christianna Brand and Josephine Bell, Lemarchand at this time was probably the oldest living writer of classic British detection.  (Elizabeth Ferrars, who was still publishing at her death in 1995, was ten months younger than Lemarchand.)

Lemarchand was part of the "second wave" of Silver Age of Detective Fiction women mystery writers who began publishing crime fiction, for the most part, in the Sixties, when Golden Age Crime Queens Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham seemed still to be going strong.  Besides Lemarchand, there were:

Gravestone of Michael Joseph Lemarchand
and Sarah Sophia Wharton, Instow, Devon
great-grandparents of Elizabeth Lemarchand
Patricia Moyes (1923-2000), who debuted with Dead Men Don't Ski in 1959
Ellis Peters (1911-1995), who actually had been publishing mysteries, along with mainstream novels, for years, but achieved a new height in the 1960s, with her second "Felse Family" detective novel, Death and the Joyful Woman (1961), which won the Edgar Award for best crime novel.
PD James (1920-2014), who debuted with Cover Her Face in 1962
Ruth Rendell (1930-2015), who debuted with From Doon with Death in 1964
Catherine Aird (1930), who debuted with The Religious Body in 1966
Margaret Yorke (1924-2012), who debuted (as a series mystery writer) with Dead in the Morning in 1970. 

Margaret Yorke soon abandoned true detective fiction for crime novels of suspense, but James and Rendell by the 1980s would become known as England's reigning Crime Queens--and, much to their disdain, as the new Agatha Christies.  (Could there be more than one?) 

In truth, Moyes and Aird probably were closer fits to Agatha Christie, at least as the writing careers of James and Rendell evolved into "character" crime fiction; but Moyes and Aird, lighter writers, never attained the renown (and sales) of James and Rendell, despite esteemed American crime fiction critic Anthony Boucher's boosting of Moyes, in particular, in the US.  (Heretically, Boucher much preferred Moyes to PD James.)

Elizabeth Lemarchand tilted more to the Moyes-Aird side of things, her seventeen murder mysteries being focused firmly on the elucidation of problems rather than the agonies of the characters.  But if Moyes and Aird were most like Christie, Lemarchand was more like that other great criem writer who appeared in 1920, Freeman Wills Crofts, whose once famous detective Lemarchand has her series character Detective-Sergeant Gregory Toye actually reference in Death of an Old Girl.

I first read Death of an Old Girl back in the 1990s, when in used bookstores you could find Lemarchand's books--some of them, anyway, the ones that were reprinted in those often rather ugly paperback editions by Walker, the American mainstay publisher of second-tier British mystery in the 1970s and 1980s.  But it was only on rereading the novel more recently that I was struck by the terrific resemblance in her work to Freeman Wills Crofts, a big name from the Golden Age and one of the authors I write about in Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery

A religiously devout railway engineer, Freeman Crofts focused intensively on the murder problems in his mysteries, most of which were solved by his stouthearted Everyman policeman detective, Inspector Joseph French.  Crofts was considered a poor hand at characterization, but in his heyday between the wars he was very popular indeed in both the UK and US, as well as other countries, with fans of pure puzzle mysteries, who then were rather considerable in number.  I will discuss these similarities below, but, first, I have some more about the life of the author.

You may have noticed above that Lemarchand was considerably older than her Silver Age Crime Queen compatriots, being essentially a generation removed from them (Ellis Peters excepted).  Alone among these women (Peters again excepted), Lemarchand was born before the First World War, and, indeed, she would have remembered the war well, being 12 years old when it ended.  (As we will see, she very much had personal reason to remember it.) 

She was 14 when Crofts seminal detective novel The Cask was published, in 1920, the year of PD James' birth.  She was actually a month older than John Dickson Carr, one of the greatest names from the Golden Age, and only two years younger than another, Margery Allingham, who passed away a year before Death of an Old Girl was published.  When it came to classic detective fiction, Lemarchand was herself something of an "old girl," doubtlessly a classic detective fiction fan of long standing.


Lemarchand family crest

As we saw in my last blog post, Lemarchand's father was a very busy doctor in Barnstaple, quite familiar there with death, both natural and unnatural.  His wife, Ethel Agnes Clark, was the daughter of Octavus Deacon Clark, a prominent civil engineer who did much work in India under the British Raj.  Both husband and wife had been born in British colonies, Ethel in Narsinghpur, India and Arthur in Colombo, Ceylon.

Arthur was of Anglo-Dutch descent.  His great-grandfather Joseph Jeremiah Lemarchand, was born in 1760 in Utrecht in the Dutch Republic.  He emigrated to the Dutch colony Demerara (now part of Guyana), where he married Rebecca Alleyne (presumably no relation to Edward Alleyn, the inspiration for Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn).  However, he was living in Cecil Street in The Strand, London, when he died in 1812.

His son, Michael Joseph Lemarchand, who was born in Demerara in 1792, at St. Anne's Church, Soho married Sara Sophia Wharton a year after his father's death.  By 1819 the couple had moved to Ghazipur, in Bengal, India, where Michael became an indigo planter.  Francis Wharton Lemarchand, the couple's ninth of eleven children, was born there in 1828.  Michael Lemarchand did very well out in India and was granted a family crest, which included a bee (symbol of industry), ship and motto, Perseverando.  The family followed the motto.

In 1858 Francis Wharton Lemarchand at St. Peter's Church, Colombo married Alice Capel Higgs, who died from childbirth after less than a year of marriage.  (Their one son from the marriage would die in Tehran, Persia forty years later, under what circumstances I don't know.) Two years later Francis wed Clara Maria Bradstock, daughter of a minister, at Instow, Devon, where his parents had retired and were buried.  Francis, an investment banker, died in 1893 and was buried, like his parents, at Instow.

Besides Elizabeth Lemarchand's father, Arthur, Francis and Clara from their holy union produced seven children, including Frederick, an Oxford-educated schoolmaster (at Oxford he was a champion hammer thrower three years running), and Hugh, who served as a District Commissioner in southern Nigeria. The most remarkable thing about the Lemarchands, however, is that Arthur converted to Catholicism.  When he died in 1923 (when his daughter Elizabeth, was only 16), the family had moved a few miles from Barnstaple to Instow, but he was buried back in the Roman Catholic section of Barnstaple Cemetery.  More typically, Arthur and Francis as boys both attended public school at Malvern College, where both of them played cricket.  (I don't know whether Francis did any hammer throwing there.)

In Death of an Old Girl, the murder weapon, a stone paperweight "with veins of quartz or something, which made a pattern like the Sphinx," was brought by one of the schoolgirls back from Westward, Ho!, a seaside resort village located just a few miles from Instow that was founded a decade after the publication of Charles Kingsley's bestselling 1855 novel of the same name.  No doubt Elizabeth Lemarchand spent time there herself.

Elizabeth Lemarchand's eldest sibling and only brother,
Francis, who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918-20

In addition to Elizabeth, or Betty as she was known, Arthur and Ethel had three children: a son, Francis Wharton, and two daughters, Margery and Constance Mary.  Latecomer Betty was the baby of the family, her elder siblings having been born between 1893 and 1898.  Constance, who died in in 1995 at the age of 97, became a headmistress, while Francis joined the navy, serving during the Great War as a Surgeon Lieutenant.  During the war he participated in major naval actions off the Belgian coast (returning to the onetime domains of his ancestors).

In March 1918 the dapper and handsome naval officer wed an 18-year-old bride, but less than a year later he expired at the age of 25 from pneumonia, contracted during the influenza pandemic of 1918-20--an event which surely must have constituted a devastating tragedy for his family.  His father Arthur passed away four years later, at the age of 56, though his mother Ethel, enjoying the longevity of the Lemarchand ladies, died in 1961, at the age of 94.

3 Elm Terrace Instow, where the Lemarchands lived during and after the Great War
3 is the third bow window from the left

view of the estuary from Elm Terrace

In the last year of the war, when she was in her 12th year, young Betty enrolled at the Ursuline Convent at nearby Bideford, which she attended for eight years, until 1926.  In 1927 she received a BA with Honors from the University of Exeter, followed by an MA in 1929.  The same year in Geneva, Switzerland she attended the Graduate Institute of International Studies, which at the time was closely associated with the League of Nations.

In the 1930s Betty, now Elizabeth, Lemarchand served in suburban Bristol as an assistant mistress at Clifton High School for Girls, where bestselling lesbian author Mary Renault had been a student in the 1920s, and at Sutton High School for Girls in London.  (Clifton was also home to the Albert Villa School, conducted by relatives of Rickie Webb of Patrick Quentin fame.)  In 1940 she joined the staff at The Godolphin School at Salisbury.  Becoming Deputy Headmistress in 1943, she would serve in this position until 1960.  Notable graduates of the school in the mystery field, before and after Lemarchand's time there, were Dorothy L. Sayers, Josephine Bell and Minette Walters.

During her last year at The Godolphin School, Lemarchand was Acting Headmistress, and for a single year she was Headmistress at Lowther College for girls in Wales, before retiring from teaching in 1961.  With Gertude Mary Jerred, who had been Headmistress at The Godolphin School during most of Lemarchand's tenure there, she bought a cottage in Dartmoor, and there the two women resided together for most of the rest of their lives. (Jerred died at the age of 96 in 1998, two years before Lemarchand.)

Multi-faceted author Antonia Fraser (who also managed to compose a few mysteries) recalled that, when her Catholic parents transferred her from Goldolphin to St. Mary's, a Catholic school, in 1946, when she was 14, Elizabeth Lemarchand, "on hearing of my future fate, had pressed a novel into my hands, Frost in May by Antonia White which had been published in the early Thirties, in order, as she put it, to warn me.  As a warning it had exactly the opposite effect.  I was tremendously excited.  The plot concerned a Protestant girl...who, like me, was sent to a Catholic school...."

Kate Macdonald's review of Frost in May may, judging from Antonia Fraser's comments above, summarize Elizabeth Lemarchand's view of Catholic education, based on her own experience (she attended Catholic school the same time Antonia White did):

It's a novel about power over innocents, within a Catholic context....the nuns are (mostly) passionately abusive, expressing always their love and care and exalted hope for the girls under their control, as the punish, humiliate, bully, terrify and dominate them.  

Interestingly, in Death of an Old Girl Lemarchand is critical of traditionalists, who, like the titular "old girl," oppose liberalizing the school environment and relaxing both physical and mental restraints on the girls.

Ursuline Convent, Bideford, early 20th century


Look at that chap Inspector French [thought Sergeant Toye].  First thing he always did in the tales was to make up his mind to come back to the scene of the crime for his next holiday.  Personally, he didn't feel all that stuck on Upshire.  A bit tame....Now a case in Devon or Cornwall at some nice place on the coast would suit him down to the ground.

--Death of an Old Girl (1967)

After her retirement in 1961, Lemarchand began publishing short stories; and her detective novel Death of an Old Girl appeared, as mentioned above, in 1967.  It was not published in the US at the time, though it did appear there in the 1980s, after Lemarchand had been taken up by the publisher Walker, who published a great many of what might be termed second and third tier British mystery writers, of the more traditional sort.  (They also published, among others, Marian Babson, Emma Page, Josephine Bell, W. J. Burley and George Bellairs.)

Highly praised by puzzle purists Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in a Catalogue of Crime and only recently reprinted after being out-of-print for thirty years, Death of an Old Girl employs a well-rendered girls' school setting that certainly would have been familiar to the author.  It is a highly traditional concoction that, in spite of occasional period references to androgynous young people, could just as easily have appeared in the 1930s.

Godolphin School, early 20th century

The "old girl" of the title is meddlesome Beatrice Baynes, a hidebound traditionalist alumnus of Meldon School for girls (she was there around the turn of the century), who reflexively opposes all of the innovations of new headmistress Helen Renshaw.  BB lives in an ancestral country house located conveniently adjacent to Meldon School.  The school itself is of that ultra-rational Georgian style so beloved by Golden Age detective novelists, "with its mellow rose-red brickwork, beautifully proportioned windows and fine portico"--the only word we're missing here is elegant, PD James' favorite word...well, either that, or atavistic.

At a school reunion BB makes rather an ass of herself, denouncing the artwork fostered by new art teacher Ann Cartmell, a protege of London art bigwig Clive Torrance, on whom Ann has rather a pash.  Aside from offending people at Meldon, BB's other favorite pastime is lording it over her dependents, great-nephew George Baynes, who could be a feckless man-about-town from a 1920s English detective novel, and sad sackette Madge Thornton, music teacher at Meldon and BB's godchild.  When BB is found dead from a bop on the head in Ann's classroom, her body stuffed under a puppet theater, all of the above people become suspects in the police investigation conducted by Scotland Yard's Inspector Bill Pollard and Sergeant Gregory Toye.

For lovers of traditional English mystery, this is as traditional gets--indeed, rather astonishingly so for 1967, a year after the ultimate bulwark of British detection tradition, Agatha Christie, gave us the ever-so-groovy Third Girl and a year before Ngaio Marsh decided to tackle race relations in Clutch of Constables.

There's not one but two timetables, a family tree, a "rough sketch" of the school grounds, police constables on bicycles, fine brandy as a murder case medicinal, a reference to "our old friend the blunt instrument," a local police inspector named Beakbane, Sergeant Toye pulling out an ordinance survey, multiple people referring to money as "lolly," a hoity-toity suspect surprised and impressed when a policeman actually addresses him in "public school English," a dour groundsman named Jock who utters heavy sarcasm to the schoolgirls in equally heavy Scottish dialect  ("I saw ye baith the nicht in yon carr parrkt b' the gates.  Wi' yer brithers, nae doot."), a working class character who says "stummick" for stomach and vigorously denounces the "bloody Japs," and a housekeeper, Mrs. Hinks, who soon reaches the "stage of pleasurable self-importance" as a witness in a murder case.  Murder will make people uppish.

Inspector Pollard reminded me  a lot of Crofts' Inspector French, or "Soapy Joe" as he was known, on account of his calculated soft soap interviewing techniques

"Contrary to popular belief the police aren't out for an arrest at any price, you know, Miss Renshaw
," explains Pollard.  "A wrong one in this case could easily put paid to my own chance of promotion."  (To his relief, this technique was successful.

I also liked when Pollard took time solicitously to ask a suspect, "Have you had any tea?" and uttered apparently his strongest oath, "my foot."  I don't know whether such policemen ever really existed, but it sure beats the cops in pre Warren Court American mysteries, who are always tiresomely threatening people with the "third degree" and the like.

There's another very French moment when Pollard indulges himself in rosy anticipation of brilliantly solving the case, only for it to be "suddenly extinguished by a cold shower of realism."  This is a highly Croftisan passage, the elder author having obviously enjoyed chronicling his Everyman detectives mental ups and downs during his investigations in a sort of "Pilgrim's Progress" fashion.

Unfortunately about a fifth of the way though the novel a key clue went clunk and at that point I was sure I knew whodunit and why.  It doesn't help that the author seems to go out of her way with her narration to exonerate three of the major suspects for the reader.  By the tenth of the novel's 21 chapters I had absolutely no doubt who the killer was, and when I turned at that point to the last pages I saw I was exactly right.  This left little of interest in the book for me, as the crime mechanics themselves were not particularly fascinating.  So while this book was a lot like Crofts (with better characterization), it regrettably was, in my view, second or third rank Crofts. 

However, I can promise you that Lemarchand went on to write some better books.  And if you miss the clue that goes clunk, you may be more favorably impressed with the novel than I was.  Though if you do miss it, shame on you! (Just kidding.)

On the new edition, issued by Sapere, there's attractive modern cover art, although it's rather misleading as you don't see an elegant school or country house on the cover but rather a decrepit country cottage.  This and the description might make you think it's a gritty village mystery, which it absolutely is not.  Also the map was not to be found in my Kindle edition.  However, the price was very good indeed! 

I think it's exciting news for fans of traditional British mystery that Lemarchand's novels are being brought back into print, and you should expect to hear more from me about them in the future.


  1. Well, I bought this a few months ago on the strength of somebody's recommendation, and there it sits on my TBR shelf. I can't say your review made me jump for this one, Curtis! I seem to always spot that sort of clue, and without having even read Crofts, I find I don't really want to. For me, the girls' school setting usually delights, however, so one of these days . . .

    1. No, I can’t say it’s really a positive review, which makes me sad because I find the author interesting and I commend Sapre Books for reprinting her. But I expect to give some stronger reviews of her in future.

    2. You should try a Crofts, maybe you’d like Found Floating or Enemy Unseen. Probably not, but you could see!

    3. By the way, Brad, didn't you hit the used bookstores in the 1990s? That's where I used to find mystery authors like Lemarchand? I was a major bookstore fiend, lol.

  2. There are four of her books translated into Swedish, two of which I have, "Let or Hindrance" and "Buried in the Past". The former I enjoyed quite a bit, the latter was perhaps just a tad too modern, but still rather enjoyable.

    I can't seem to find the title "Let or Hindrance" anywhere, so I suppose that's an alternate title? "No Vacation from Murder", perhaps?

    1. That’s the English title, Vaction is the American. I don’t think Let or Hindrance travels too well as a title. What do you mean by too modern concerning the other, I wonder.

      I hope I wasn’t too hard on the Old Girl, but I just felt the culprit was too obvious and there was t enough else to compensate. Maybe I’m just really clever, too much so for my own good, but, lol, I don’t think that was it!

    2. I just felt it was a bit non-GA, more of a police procedural, I think. It was a while since I read it, though, so my memory is quite hazy.

    3. I think she's so much like Crofts, who was sort of proto-police procedural, I think. So much emphasis on rigorous police investigation. I'll check that one out!

  3. I just read the reprint on Kindle, with no maps, though could have done with one. I enjoyed it, without thinking it was the best crime story ever, for the same reasons as you did. All the info was fascinating - Godolphin School is still going strong, and is not far from where I live. (At one point they had a house or dormitory named after Sayers...)

    1. I like some other books by her better and will be blogging about her again. I admire her the unfashionable commitment to tradition form! For me that one clue gave away the whole thing far too early, however. But it was a first book.