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by Katharine Farrer
Rue Morgue Press, August 2005
191 pages
ISBN: 0915230836

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Although heralded as an Oxford mystery, GOWNSMAN'S GALLOWS is mainly set in the Touraine region of France, which in 1954, when the novel is set, is still buzzing with tales of the Resistance and the aftermath of the Occupation.

The story begins, however, in one of Oxford's spookier streets when Tim Dawson-Glover, an undergraduate out for a drive in his ancient car with his war hero brother Nigel, runs over a body lying in the road. Tom has had some problems with the college and fears this may be the last straw resulting in his expulsion and consequent ruin.

So despite assurances that the man in the road was already dead before he hit him, he bolts for the college leaving Nigel the task of disposing of the corpse. Nigel isn't entirely successful, however, and the body is partly recovered the next morning.

The local police quickly realise that this is going to be a complex murder to untangle and call in a former Oxford man, Inspector Richard Ringwood from Scotland Yard. Ringwood has a reputation in such matters and also some unconventional methods, notably the use of his pet bloodhound, which quickly lead him to Tim Dawson-Glover and his roommate the Hon Francis Clandon. In a panic, Tim flees to France, leaving Nigel to cover his tracks.

As Ringwood sets off for France to follow him, Nigel also disappears and soon joins up with former Resistance fighters in the Touraine where Tim is staying, the same area where the murdered man Depuys appears to have hailed from.

Just as in Oxford we are entertained by bumbling praefects, snobbish dons, and foolish undergraduates, in France there are some amusing if seemingly stereotypical characters too. The French police, like their compatriots, are more interested in food and women than most anything else and, in preparation for Ringwood's welcome dinner, routinely round up a few strong-looking drunks to man the ice cream machine located in the village jail.

But there is a lot more going on below the surface of most of the characters. Many are well versed in espionage and the complicated machinations of underground fighters. Local murders start taking place and a plot of some description is underway, but it is not always easy to tell what events are linked and who the bad guys are.

As well as the interesting characters and unusual plot there is also an opportunity to learn a little of the French police methods of the time, particularly a system of body measurements known as anthropometry which was claimed to work almost if not as well as fingerprinting.

GOWNSMAN'S GALLOWS is a fascinating and complex mystery thriller from the Golden Age with some wonderful comic moments, but also sad glimpses of the victims of war. It is the third and regrettably final episode of the Ringwood trilogy but stands on its own. The first two books of the series are THE MISSING LINK and THE CRETAN COUNTERFEIT and they have also been reprinted by Rue Morgue Press.

Reviewed by Bridget Bolton, September 2005

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