This was the first Inspector Felse mystery I ever read. After I'd finished all of Peters' Brother Cadfael mysteries, I finally gave in, despite having groused to myself for years that she'd spent time on these when she could have been spreading mayhem through medieval Shropshire for our fun and her profit.
It's a shame I took so long to give Felse a fair chance. Peters was already an excellent writer when this story was written; the Felse stories are good novels, not just clever puzzles. They carry the bonus that they aren't bound to a formula as tightly as are the chronicles of Brother Cadfael.
Felse's turf is on the Welsh border, but in the last half of the twentieth century, and in "Midshire" (technically not Shropshire). As in the Cadfael stories, time doesn't stand still for the characters. This, as one of George's later appearances, doesn't feature his son Dominic in an active role in the investigation - Dominic is on holiday abroad, having just graduated from university. This particular story is set in Mottisham, one of the villages near Felse's home base of Comerbourne; the area is also the scene of RAINBOW'S END, for anyone who'd like to see how the supporting characters fared in later years.
The Macsen-Martels, as their double-barreled name suggests, are an old family, but their fires are burning out. The valley, as local Sgt. Moon says, is tribal, not feudal - 'squire' is a dirty word around here. The best they ever did was in acquiring Mottisham Abbey out of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. "Count for nothing now. Never will again. Never *did*, for all that much."
Robert senior was a notorious womanizer who sank the family deep in debt before finally breaking his neck in the hunting field. His widow, a cousin whom he married for her money, would never hear a word against him. Robert junior, the elder son, takes after his mother in looks and values, but what in her is aristocratic arrogance has in him been eroded like a medieval carving. He grew up helping her cope with his father's endless debts and paternity suits, and it seems to have taken its toll on more than the family fortunes - he's worn to the bone. Far from being a lord of the manor, he works in a realtor's office. His younger brother Hugh, on the other hand, has his father's energy, but he turns it to a more profitable end as the junior partner of Cressett and Martel, local garage. (The senior partner, Dave Cressett, is only a year younger than Robert, and where Hugh provides flash and dazzle, Dave provides sturdy dependability. Dinah, Dave's younger sister, chips in - a pocket edition, but made of the right stuff; Hugh's got sense enough to be moving toward marriage with her.)
The family can't maintain the Abbey anymore, and they've finally convinced the National Trust to step in. The building must be restored to original condition as much as possible, so they've started by reinstalling the old wine cellar door in the church porch - there's a family story that it belongs there. George Felse, just returning from a holiday after promotion to deputy head of the county CID, passes the time of day with Sgt. Moon while stuck in traffic, caused by the bishop's stately progress of reconsecrating the door. It's a *DOOR* - 7 x 5 mediaeval oak, flanked by carved angels that were outdated when it was carved and have come all the way around to being modern, and weighing a quarter of a ton. It and its knocker come complete with a Macsen-Martel family legend, which we hear when the younger son, Hugh, takes his Dinah to officially meet his family.
Only a local sensation, not even a nine-days'-wonder; Bunty's comfortable statement that there's nothing to fetch them back for a second look, though, goes into the category of Famous Last Words. At first, it only begins with the regulars of the Sitting Duck taking the mickey out of the small gang of pressmen who turned out for the ceremony. (The pub conserves its home-brewed beer for the regulars, and anyhow such strangers are nature's way of providing entertainment.) Nobody expected Gerry Bracewell, the quickest-witted of the pack, to return a few weeks later in pursuit of a potential story - and still less for Dave Cressett to find him dead in the church porch, head beaten in before the door.
Felse opts to hang onto the case rather than passing it to the Yard; something was significant about the door itself, not the man. All that was unusual about him was that he'd seen the door once before, years ago, when photographing the house for a series of articles on obscure country houses. But what could be so deadly about a door that was already on public display?
The only touches of amateur hour in Felse's thoroughly professional investigation are Dave Cressett's inquiries when he returns Bracewell's car to the widow, and a few scenes from Dinah's point of view. They're adequately explained by the closed-shop attitude of Mottisham's people - when there's trouble, they pull together, but right must be done. Although those psychic researchers are fair game when they show up at the pub...