Mr Cadmus by Peter Ackroyd

Reviewed by Annabel

Owning most of Ackroyd’s fiction output and a good chunk of his non-fiction (even if I haven’t quite read it all), I thought I had a grip on his style, particularly his love of the Victorians and history. Yes, occasionally, he’d write a novel set near or with a strand in the present, but often that would look backwards into history too. So, I was rather surprised when Mr Cadmus came along, for this slim novel shows Ackroyd having an awful lot of fun!

At first glance, this novel appears to be a pastiche of all those cosy crime novels, like the ‘Agatha Raisin’ novels set in a very English murder village during the 1980s, and indeed that’s how it begins.

The three cottages stood in a row at the eastern end of Little Camborne. […]

The first of them—1, The Coppice—was owned by Maud Finch. At the age of fifty-five Miss Finch still held herself erect; she had firm opinions, and a firm manner of expressing them. She wore rather severe clothes and from a distance might have been mistaken for either sex. Millicent Swallow lived at 3, The Coppice. Miss Swallow was a mild and compliant woman; she was younger than Miss Finch, and was described by her neighbour as ‘a little vague around the edges’.

Despite being complete opposites, the two women are bosom friends. But who lives in number 2? Well no-one at the start, but soon the cottage is bought for ‘a foreign client’, who arrives in his canary yellow car and brightly coloured clothes. The removers unload a piano and a large but empty parrot cage; the two women are rather perturbed by the latter.

Miss Finch noted that he had a slightly swarthy complexion, with a pencil-thin moustache. He was perhaps in his late fifties, of middle height, and seemed to her to resemble a mature Douglas Fairbanks. Miss Swallow, on the other hand, saw in him a likeness to William Holden, whom she had watched in The Towering Inferno some years before.

Soon, Mr Theodore Cadmus, from the small Mediterranean island of Caldera, has visited both ladies, bearing chocolates, and fast becoming a friend to them both. The reader is momentarily fooled into thinking that this will be a tale of jealousy between the two ladies as they fight over Theo, showing him the sights.

But this is a darker story than that, not so cosy at all. We can, however, be sure of two things: the subjects of a cosy mystery will always be hiding secrets which is true of each of our trio, and, of course, the arrival of a stranger in the village’s midst will cause chaos. In particular, we will find out why Mr Cadmus has picked this particular village to reside in; he has a score to settle which relates back to his childhood on Caldera during the Second World War.

Ackroyd continues to have fun with us as there are plenty of comic set pieces in this novel too, satirising village life and murder mysteries, from the thieving vicar to the joys of the village fete, plus robbery and yes, murder—where’s Midsomer Murders’ DI Barnaby when you need him? There’s also the parrot who, as you’d hope, has a great line in swearing!

In fact, this novel reminded me of nothing so much as Mervyn Peake’s Mr Pye published in 1953, in which the titular Pye arrives on the small island of Sark determined to do good and sets the whole island into a tumult. Ackroyd’s Misses Finch and Swallow remind me of Pye’s fierce Miss Dredger and plump Miss George, rivals who become friends, a little reversed in the case of Ackroyd’s pair of spinsters. Both novels have a touch of the supernatural about them too, although Ackroyd’s is rather slighter than Peake’s protagonist who grows angel wings.

This novel was such a departure from Ackroyd’s normal oeuvre, but I really enjoyed its dark quirkiness and the humour in the first two-thirds was delightful. Greed and jealousy will come out though as revenge is exacted bringing the tale to its dark conclusion. I hope that Ackroyd will continue to have more writing fun occasionally!  

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Annabel is Co-Founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books. She doesn’t like her reading to be too cosy.

Peter Ackroyd, Mr Cadmus (Canongate 2020). 978-1786898944, 186 pp., hardback.

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