I loved Pamela Godden’s The Corpse In The Waiting Room when it was published in 2014. Set in the aftermath of The Great War, it begins in November 1920 on the eve of the Armistice commemorations. After a timely re-read, I still think it’s a superb piece of historical crime fiction.
The novel opens with the body of the Unknown Soldier en route from France aboard The Verdun and arriving at Dover. A reluctant Philip Tethering accompanies his sister Meg to watch the landing from the chalk cliffs above the port.
They could see it clearly now. On the deck the crew lined the rails, and further aft there was a mound of colour which puzzled Philip at first until he realised that it must be the coffin, totally buried under its wreaths. The ship crept across the harbout and nosed in to the landing stage, and the sailors sprang into action. The strains of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ floated up to them. Around them, the crowd watched reverently as the coffin was lifted and carried ashore. The ranks of soldiers drawn up on either side reversed arms. The music changed and at a slow march the coffin was borne along the pier to the Marine Station entrance. The last man home.
When they join the crowds at Dover Harbour Station, watching to see the funeral van pass by on the train to London, Philip slips away to the waiting-room and finds the body of a woman. She’s been murdered within easy reach of hundreds of people, while all their backs were turned. It’s a very clever premise.
Philip Tethering is an engaging sleuth with a very likable family. The Tetherings live comfortably at the ‘Big House’ in a village near Dover. A young officer in the recent War, Philip has almost recovered from months of physical incapacity and a degree of shell-shock.
If he had had any suspicion that he would not be able to keep his wits about him and look after his sister, he would not have agreed to come at all; all the same, he was uneasily aware of all the old anxieties lurking just beyond the edge of his thoughts and ready to pounce.
One of the story’s great strengths is its depiction of a society rehabilitating itself after several years of war and loss. Philip Tethering is gradually regaining his confidence and starting to think about how best to live in peacetime. The dead woman turns out to be from the village and events draw him into investigating her murder.
Employed by the local gentry and dependent on their custom, the villagers are mostly deferential when questioned and ready to gossip. The characters are eminently believable and the attitudes of the time are cleverly shown. It’s easy for authors to get this wrong but Pamela Godden’s portrayal of the subtleties of class and the pecking order of an English village is authentic and beautifully written.
The author clearly knows Dover and its rural surroundings intimately. There are some superb descriptions of the town and the autumn countryside slipping into winter. The Corpse In The Waiting Room is an intriguing mystery, gripping, elusive and fairly clued. It’s a very literary detective novel, elegantly evoking the psychology and atmosphere of a vanished time.
Highly recommended – especially for fans of Kate Ellis’s A High Mortality Of Doves and Charles Todd’s Inspector Rutledge series.