Elizabeth Lemarchand (1906-2000) was an educator at several schools in England and Wales who, after retirement, turned her hand to writing mystery novels. Between 1967 and 1988, she wrote 17 novels featuring Detective Chief Inspector Pollard and his able assistant Sergeant Toye of Scotland Yard. She was often compared to Agatha Christie, but after reading the first in the series, Death of an Old Girl, I would say she’s a more cerebral Agatha Christie.
Meldon School for Girls, founded in the 1880s, is having its annual homecoming and meeting of the Old Meldonian Society. One old girl (alumnus) is Beatrice Bayne’s, who actually lives in a cottage on the school property. She doesn’t like the changes happening at the school, and in between making derogatory comments about the grounds crew and generally throwing her weight around, she’s been looking for an opportunity to get rid of the new art teacher.
Another teacher, who happens to be Baines’ godchild, returns from her mother’s funeral with fire in her eye. She’s desperate to find her godmother. The art teacher isn’t happy with the meddling old girl. Neither is the head of school who’s making so many changes. Baynes seems to have managed to offend just about everyone at the school. And then her body is found stuffed into a puppet theater – the art classroom.
When DCI Pollard and Sergeant Toye show up, they find a multitude of suspects with a number of petty motives – but enough to kill the elderly woman? Pollard and Toye are very different personalities that combine to form a well-balanced team. They painstakingly develop and keep revising a timetable of events, including where and when everyone can be accounted for. After several intense days of investigation, they discover that none of the suspects could really have killed the woman. They know she was killed in the art classroom, and they know the weapon was likely a stone paperweight, now missing. But everyone’s time can be accounted for.
It’s not until Pollard decides to crawl inside the mind of the victim and ask the question, what what she really doing in the art classroom, that light begins to break in the case.
Published in 1967, Death of an Old Girl is a well-written tale of everyone can be guilty and no one can be guilty – until some intensive police works identifies the villain.