We first met Catherine Aird on a cold, blustery day in March 2006, in Bristol, England, beneath a weathered statue of Queen Victoria. We had been driven onto the pavement by our hotel’s faulty fire alarm system, a non-calamity that happened all too frequently during our four-day stay there, eliciting numerous apologies (as well as a free breakfast) from the Royal Marriott. When it became evident that the fire once again was a phantom, the huddled guests began showing signs of definite hostility, but a resilient Catherine Aird maintained her usual cheerful demeanor.
The three of us (and four hundred others) were attending Left Coast Crime, an American mystery convention normally held in the western United States but being held that year on the west coast of England. We were selling books at the convention but hadn’t known Aird was attending. Not a regular on the convention circuit (“Like a rough local wine, I don’t travel well”), she was a last-minute addition who had just shown up at the event without any fanfare and who seemed a bit bemused by it all, yet obviously relishing every minute.
In the course of our impromptu meeting, we mentioned that we were great fans of her work, especially her second novel, A Most Contagious Game, and told her that we had talked, in vain, to several smallish publishers about reprinting it. It was at that very moment that we decided to reprint it ourselves, even though most of Rue Morgue’s offerings to date have been vintage mysteries. However, when you own the shop, you can make your own rules. So, with nary a qualm, we immediately expanded our personal definition of a vintage mystery to include any books that were published before we became mystery booksellers in 1970.
A Most Contagious Game, Aird’s only stand-alone novel, was first published in 1967. Her first book, The Religious Body (1966), featured, as did all of her subsequent novels, Inspector C.D. Sloan of the Calleshire C.I.D. You won’t find Calleshire in any atlas. Like Anthony Trollope (followed by Angela Thirkell) and later Thomas Hardy, Aird chose to create an imaginary shire in which to set her stories, partly “so that it could have all the usual institutions without my having to worry about upsetting real people.” Calleshire, however, no doubt in many ways resembles Kent, where Catherine Aird, a pseudonym for Kinn Hamilton McIntosh, born in Yorkshire in 1930, has made her home in a small village near Canterbury for most of her life, living in the same house since 1946. “Real life (and) that intimate knowledge of the same English village” has provided Aird with most of the background needed for her books. She suspects that her fellow villagers rarely think of her as a writer and are more likely to refer to her as the village doctor’s daughter, a one-time golfer, and as an editor and publisher of village histories. She neglects to add that her neighbors might also have noticed that she was made an M.B.E. for her long-time work with the Girl Guides Association.
Some English critics, T.J. Binyon, for example, have grumbled that “it is difficult to create a sense of place with an imaginary locality” while grudgingly admitting that her books are “nicely contrived and pleasantly unpretentious.” What Binyon fails to understand is that the majority of mystery readers, especially Americans, are more interested in a somewhat idealized English landscape than in the frequently blighted real thing.
While Calleshire may be an imaginary locale, Aird neatly introduces real historical figures into the stately manor houses that exist only in her mind. The priest hole that Thomas Harding discovers in his recently purchased Tudor mansion is reputed to be the work of Nicolas Owen. Nicknamed “God’s Carpenter,” Owen constructed scores of secret rooms to conceal the priests who conducted clandestine services when Catholics were forbidden to practice their religion during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and James I. Owen was an unlikely hero. So short he might well have been considered a dwarf, he was required by a severe hernia to wear a metal plate to hold his stomach together. His health was further complicated when a horse fell on him in 1599, leaving him partially crippled. In spite of these infirmities, Owen, working alone at night and asking no pay, created virtually undetectable hiding places for renegade clerics, such as the one in A Most Contagious Game. Even when he was tortured on the rack for six hours a day in the Tower of London after the Gunpowder Plot failed, Owen refused to divulge the locations of any of his handiwork, dying a martyr on March 2, 1606. He was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church in 1970. It’s not surprising then that the priest hole in A Most Contagious Game went undiscovered for so long. Indeed, it’s said that some of Owen’s hiding places remain undetected to this day.
Like her amateur sleuth, Aird loves to do research, but she realizes that research is often just a way to avoid doing the actual writing. She claims to write only when “there isn’t anything more pressing or interesting to do.” A typical book takes her nine months to produce. “This is by no means not the only thing it has in common with another, better known, form of gestation. I also experience a ‘quickening’ about half way through when the book, like the baby, seems to kick itself alive. In the only instance so far where this did not happen, I finished the book and threw it to the back of the attic. This was twenty years ago and I have not seen it since.”
Aird did not start out to be a writer. She intended to follow in her father’s footsteps and study medicine but had to abandon that idea when she came down with nephrotic syndrome, a very serious condition that often leads to kidney failure. It’s less lethal today, thanks to steroids and transplants, but more than a half century ago it forced her to take to bed for an extended period, during which she read a great deal of detective fiction, including Sapper, the Saint, Raymond Chandler, and, of course, one of her personal favorites, Josephine Tey, whose own Daughter of Time also explores an historical mystery with the detective having to resort to research to solve a long-ago crime. Later she wrote “two or three bad novels before turning to crime, so to speak—definitely a case of poacher turned gamekeeper.”
Grounded as she was in the traditional mystery, it’s not surprising that her books reflect many of the aspects of mysteries from the Golden Age of detection (roughly 1913 to 1953) when fair play was the name of the game and the reader an active participant in uncovering whodunit. Such a reader was Aird’s mother, who would faithfully read the first couple of chapters of her daughter’s manuscripts, jot down the name of the villain and then place this piece of paper in a sealed envelope to be opened when the book was done. Her mother figured out the villain every time. “Fine words, carefully crafted by me to conceal the murderer among a welter of more suspicious characters, buttered no parsnips with her,” writes Aird.
Aird’s entry into the ranks of crime writers was warmly welcomed by the critics. Crime fiction historian Melvyn Barnes cited her as one of the writers who “has breathed new life into the genre, concentrating mainly upon the cosy village puzzle of the golden age tradition but showing welcome unwillingness to maintain the rather colorless, unconvincing and formulaic approach of so many of her predecessors...those who say that the modern crime novel heralded the demise of the traditional mystery story will continue to be confounded by writers of Catherine Aird’s standard.” Her third book—and second Sloan—Henrietta Who? (1968) was picked by New York Times reviewer Allen J. Hubin as one of the best books of the year. In discussing her work in the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, Pearl G. Aldrich said Aird was a throwback to “the leisurely, kinder, gentler crime novel,” displaying a tone that “is smiling, good-natured, good-mannered, (and) amusing.” Aldrich points out that the “voice of the omniscient author is heard continuously, commenting, explaining, digressing, joking, adding extraneous information, and explaining English ways and attitudes.” Aldrich is especially fond of The Complete Steel, published in the U.S. as The Stately Home Murder (1969). Easily the funniest book in Aird’s output, the action focuses on a dotty titled family struggling to make ends meet. In 2002, this title was one of 103 mysteries chosen for inclusion in They Died in Vain: Overlooked, Underappreciated and Forgotten Mystery Novels, edited by Jim Huang with contributions from members of the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association.
But if ever a book by Aird has been forgotten, it has to be A Most Contagious Game, which, as of January 2007, wasn’t even listed on the author’s own website, in the on-line reference work Wikipedia, nor among her publications in her recent Sloan books published by St. Martin’s Press. We suspect this oversight arises because it was Aird’s only non-Sloan book, not because it was an unloved offspring born on the wrong side of a literary blanket. Aird herself said that she wrote no other stand-alone because her editors wanted only Sloans.
In fact, there are those who think A Most Contagious Game is Aird’s finest book. Mystery writer Susan Dunlap, writing in 1986 in 1001 Midnights, called it Aird’s best, pointing out that Thomas and Dora Harding are “portrayed with such fine strokes that they seem to have been taken whole from real life,” an observation we heartily second., although Aird maintains that she has “never consciously written about anyone in the community in which I live.”
In the early 1980s, we recall talking one of our customers, an English professor at the University of Colorado, into taking a chance on A Most Contagious Game. He was a well-read man, a collector of rare books in the field of English literature who could leave his house near the university in a freshly pressed, expensive new suit and arrive on campus after a five-minute walk looking as if he had bought his clothes off the rack at a second-rate thrift store. A few days after we sold him the Aird book, he popped into the store in his once-again crumpled suit, waved the book in the air, and proclaimed, “I’m going to tell you why this may well be the most perfect detective novel ever written...”
And for the next twenty minutes he did so, apparently having completely forgotten that we were the ones who had recommended the book to him in the first place. We hope you enjoy it as much as he did.
Tom & Enid Schantz
The editors would like to acknowledge Catherine Aird and the following sources used in writing this introduction: Murder in Print: A Guide to Two Centuries of Crime Fiction by Melvyn Barnes; “I Am Two Fools—Or Home Alone,” an essay by Catherine Aird in Living with a Writer, edited by Dale Salwak; 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado’s Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction, edited by Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller; The St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers, edited by Jay P. Pederson; Murder Will Out: The Detective in Fiction by T. J. Binyon; and “God’s Carpenter” by Dave Kopel in Liberty Magazine, March 2004.