Archive for the ‘Antonia Fraser’ Category

Quiet as a Nun: A Tale of Murder by Antonia Fraser ~ 1977. This edition: Viking Press, 1977. Hardcover. 177 pages.

My rating: 7/10. Not bad at all. I’d definitely read the other mystery novels by this author, and look forward to accumulating the rest of them in my travels, now that I’m on to her, as it were.

*****

Is 1977 “vintage”? Just barely, I suspect, but it was thirty-five years ago – and golly, I remember 1977 clear as a bell – where do the years go? – so I will go ahead and classify it with the oldies.

Antonia Fraser is a well-respected author of scholarly biographies, who branched out into fictional stories with this very novel. From the author’s website:

Since 1969 Antonia Fraser has  written nine acclaimed historical works which have been international  best-sellers.  She began with MARY QUEEN  OF SCOTS (1969) and followed it with CROMWELL: OUR CHIEF OF MEN (1973) and  CHARLES II (1979).  Three books featuring  women’s history came next: THE WEAKER VESSEL: WOMAN’S LOT IN THE SEVENTEENTH  CENTURY (1984); THE WARRIOR QUEENS (1988) and  THE SIX WIVES OF HENRY VIII (1992).  A  study in religious extremism, THE GUNPOWDER PLOT: TERROR AND FAITH IN 1605  (1996) was followed by two books set at the court of Versailles: MARIE  ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY (2001) and LOVE AND LOUIS XIV: THE WOMEN IN THE LIFE OF  THE SUN KING (2006).

Antonia  Fraser has also written eight crime novels and two books of short stories  featuring Jemima Shore Investigator.  She  edits the Kings and Queens of England series for Weidenfeld & Nicolson  including her own short illustrated book KING JAMES VI AND I (1974) and the  composite volume KINGS AND QUEENS OF ENGLAND (1975).  She has also edited the following  anthologies: SCOTTISH LOVE POEMS (1974), LOVE LETTERS (1976), HEROES AND  HEROINES (1980) and THE PLEASURE OF READING (1992).

Among  the many awards she has received are the Wolfson Award for History; the James  Tait Black Prize for Biography; the Crimewriters’ Non-Fiction Gold Dagger; the  Franco-British Society Literary Award, and the Norton Medlicott Medallion of  the Historical Association.  She was made  a CBE in 1999.

Antonia Fraser is the eldest child of the Labour politician and prison reformer Lord Longford and the historical biographer Elizabeth Longford. She has six children by her first marriage to Sir Hugh Fraser MP and eighteen grandchildren. She was married to Harold Pinter who died on Christmas Eve 2008.

So that’s the author’s background – rather impressive, so I was expecting great things from this mystery novel. By and large it did not disappoint, though “great” would be an overstatement in reference to this slender diversionary read.

I had hoped for a fairly fast-paced, readable and engaging story, and I had no trouble polishing this one off during the course of one session of lunch break/bedtime/early morning tea break reading. Easy to pick up, easy to put down; the characters stayed fresh and clear in my mind, which is not always the case even during such a short reading span, so that was a point in favour.

From the author’s website:

A nun is dead – her emaciated corpse has been discovered  locked in the tower   of Blessed Eleanor’s  Convent. The tragic consequence of a neurotic young woman committing to a life  of isolation and piety, the inquest concludes. But this young woman held  unusual power over the convent … power she was planning to use.

Jemima Shore tries to keep  her distance from the case, but when her lover cancels their holiday she finds  herself reluctantly getting involved. A violent attack in the dead of night and  another death convinces her that the convent is not the haven of peace it  appears to be. Suspicion and fear hang heavy in the air but how do you solve a  murder no-one will admit happened?

The main character is thirty-something Jemimah Shore, a television investigative reporter who hosts a popular program which touches on various social and cultural topics, and “digs deeper”, hence the tag “Investigator” which has become attached to Jemimah’s name. Widely known through Britain because of her T.V. presence, Jemimah is used to many people from her past reappearing and claiming acquaintance, so she is not terribly surprised when the Mother Superior of her childhood convent school sends her a letter referring in complimentary terms to her present occupation. What does surprise Jemimah is Mother Ancilla’s urgent request that Jemimah visit Blessed Eleanour’s Convent to discuss the recent death of one of Jemimah’s former school companions, who found her vocation and became a nun at the convent after she and Jemimah had parted ways.

Sister Miriam, once the wealthy Rosabelle Powerstock, had apparently died of natural causes, but there is a mystery about her death. Why did she lock herself in the ancient tower attached to the nunnery, and why had she been so insistent that Jemimah be called, before her (Sister Miriam’s) unfortunate demise?

Jemimah is an interesting character, and I thought her a rather admirable private investigator. Cool, calm and collected, thoughtful Jemimah views the world with an eye just the warm side of cynical. No fool, she is well-used to analyzing motivations and actions, and she turns her eye upon herself on occasion with surprising firmness and self-critisism. A non-strident but rock solid feminist, Jemimah gets on with things and has little time or patience for drama in her life, which makes it a bit eye-opening that her romantic involvement is with a firmly married liberal M.P. The relationship is long-lasting and seems stable enough, though we get the strong sense that Jemimah wishes it could be regularized and much more open; it seems well-known among her circle of acquaintances, though the wife of her lover is definitely unenlightened.

The plot itself is a contrived little thing – a missing will, a threat to the convent, and a melodramtically inclined social crusader are all key elements. I figured out the “mystery” almost immediately, though there was a tiny twist at the end which I did not see coming; Jemimah’s reaction was unexpected and made me curious to see what her next mystery will have her doing. (There were eventually ten books in the Jemimah Shore series, written between 1977 and 1995, though and I wonder if that writerly interest is wrapped up; the author’s most recent work is a memoir about her life with the late Harold Pinter, Must You Go?, 2010.)

Thoughtful musings on religion, and the author’s undoubted talent for words raise this novel higher than the plot deserves, to put this first mystery novel nicely into the realm of Patricia Wentworth, and a reasonable compatriot of the slighter works of Margery Allingham, Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. I’ve read much worse.

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