John Denman is a quiet denizen of Riverside Cottage in the village of Wilchester. He is engaged in the enjoyable pursuit of writing about Herodotus when rudely interrupted by a girl in peril. Entering dramatically, he unfolds a tale of a “nasty beast” with “an enormous revolver – like Hopalong Cassidy’s” thus proving that her imagination is greater than her gifts of plausibility. Denman, being a gentleman, accepts her story until she sticks on a detail too far. But, just as he calls her out on being a liar, the window is shattered by a gunshot.
So how much of the truth is she telling? Is there any connection with all the suspicious activity in the village, which seems to be embracing its cultural heritage of smuggling a little too enthusiastically? And can there have ever been a smuggler who was taken seriously under the name of ‘Slippery Dick’?
‘Mischief in the Offing’ is a light hearted story with a large cast of village ‘types’, including P.C. Arrow who is ruled by his stern, self-righteous and eagle-eyed mum (known as ‘Sergeant Arrow’ by many in the village, who consider her a somewhat more daunting law-enforcer than her son); Mr Pine, the local landlord; various Bright Young Things (too Bright, in the view of many crustier villagers); a dotty professor and a rather suspect American. Not all of these are quite what they seem.
As well as smuggling, there is also a treasure hunt, a mysterious disappearance and the first literary reference I’ve ever found to the game of Stoolball, which I used to play at school but which nobody else seems ever to have heard of, so it’s pleasing to discover that I hadn’t just hallucinated a large chunk of P.E.
Despite all this, and decent writing, I did have some reservations. The whole book seemed a little too busy and full, without any of the characters being particularly endearing. And Kay Forrester is one of the least convincing Femme Fatales I’ve ever come across. The scenes with her girlishly vamping John Denman – who is presumably supposed to be reasonably intelligent – and his succumbing to his Hyde nature (very discreetly, in a tent) are rather embarrassing for both of them. I quite liked Inspector Clam, though, who values the use of potent silence to extract confidences from his suspects.
On the whole, while I don’t recommend it wholeheartedly, this was enjoyable enough to be worth a read: and I didn’t spot the main villain until near the end.