Published in 2015, Heirs and Assigns is an historical detective novel in the best British tradition. I really enjoyed this book, particularly for its clever plotting, evocative sense of place and understanding of its fascinating period, the late 1920s.
I’ve liked Marjorie Eccles’s work for many years – her Gil Mayo police procedurals set in The Black Country (in the English West Midlands) and stand-alones. It was a great shame that she wasn’t well-served by the BBC when they made a series using the Gil Mayo books. As I recall, they went for a quirky approach which was quite different from the novels and didn’t prove popular.
It’s interesting how hit and miss these things are. When Bentley Productions added a tongue-in-cheek spin to Caroline Graham’s excellent Chief Inspector Barnaby novels, they came up with Midsomer Murders… and the rest is history. (It didn’t hurt that the early episodes were adapted from the novels by renowned crime novelist and script-writer, Anthony Horowitz).
But had things gone differently, Marjorie Eccles’s Superintendent Mayo would be a famous name, along with the likes of Barnaby and Vera. Over the years I’ve too rarely seen her work in bookshops, she’s one of many authors whose books I discovered in libraries. These days they’re available as ebooks. I wish an enterprising production company would pick up the Inspector Reardon series. They’d make perfect Sunday night viewing.
Heirs and Assigns takes place in November 1928. Inspector Herbert Reardon and Sergeant Joe Gilmour live and work in Dudley at the heart of The Black Country. An industrial town of cramped, back-to-back terraces, mill chimneys and a permanent pall of gritty smoke. Many people think that The Black Country had its name from the smog but it actually comes from the wide seam of coal that the towns and villages are built upon. John – born and bred in the Black Country – says the coal seam itself used to be known locally as the thick.
The detectives are sent to investigate a suspicious death at Hinton Wyvering. A village close to the remote countryside along the Welsh Border, it’s with a day’s reach of Dudley and a world away in landscape. The owner of Bryn Glas, a Tudor farmhouse, now comfortable family home, died in the night, after his sixtieth birthday dinner. Someone among Pen Llewellyn’s family and friends is a murderer.
Bryn Glas sat on a wide natural plateau, a parcel of land scooped out of the side of the hill, at a point high above the river. Behind the hill the land rose even higher to the moors, the great windy spaces of heathland, where the undulating countryside became wilder, rockier and even dangerous at times, littered with disused quarry workings. A great outcrop to the east was a place of cliffs, caves and precipitous drops down to the river.
Marjorie Eccles vividly portrays life in a quiet, rural corner of England in the late 1920s. The way people lived and their very different attitudes are so well depicted. The house and village are beautifully described and you can picture every scene. Most of the village straggles along a hilltop above a river. Left behind even then, by the main road at its foot, leading to the town.
Inspector Reardon and his sergeant are appealing characters, both happily married. They work well together. Reardon is a compassionate, perceptive detective, carrying scars – in every sense – from his experiences in the Great War.
Ten years later, we see the times are changing. Old family estates have been broken up, village blacksmiths shoe horses and tinker with motor-cars. Inspector Reardon contemplates affording a two-seater Morris for his wife. Yet the consequences of the First World War are still affecting the villagers.
One resident is treated with suspicion as a former Conscientious Objector, women, who had temporary jobs while men were at the Front, resent being put aside in peacetime. Though in the year the novel is set, all women were finally given the vote, they are still struggling to forge careers on equal terms with men. Inspector Reardon’s wife Ellen is a former teacher who had to resign on marriage.
There are several intriguing motives for murder, secrets and old grudges for Reardon and Gilmour to uncover. When the answer is revealed, murderer and motive are very plausible. The plot is extremely well thought-out and psychologically sound.
Heirs and Assigns is the third title in the Inspector Reardon series. I’m looking forward to reading the earlier books and the latest title, The Property of Lies, published in May 2017.