The latest reprint from the British Library Crime Classics, a bucolic yet close-wound fictional take on the once-famous real-life story of the Tichborne Claimant, reads like Brideshead Revisited with murder.
Lady Jessica Wainwright’s surviving sons, Miles and Stephen, live with her and Stephen’s wife, Clarissa, in Belting, the estate she inherited from Gen. Wainwright when he died in 1940. But she doesn’t love any of them; all the love she could give her family was lavished on her older sons, Hugh and David, both of them killed in the war. Some time after she welcomes her orphaned grandnephew, Christopher Barrington to Belting, a letter arrives from David. His bomber was indeed shot down, but he survived only to be imprisoned for long years in a Soviet labor camp. Miles, Stephen, and Clarissa, all of whom feel that they’ve worked hard for their inheritance, do everything they can to keep Lady Wainwright from hearing about the letter but to no avail, and at length the man claiming to be David arrives at Belting. The men he greets as brothers dismiss him out of hand as an imposter; Christopher, who narrates the story, isn’t sure what to believe; and when the family appeals to Betty Urquhart, David’s former mistress, and Dr. Vivian Foster, his best friend, for help, their reactions only confuse the situation further. By the time they arrive, however, a murder has already raised the stakes without answering the riddle of whether the man calling himself David Wainwright indeed has a right to the name and to a sizeable share of the estate.
Veteran puzzle hounds who guess the ending will still be moved by its power. The tale’s valedictory tone, perfectly suited to a story set 10 years before Symons wrote it and hearkening back to social institutions from a still earlier age, is underlined by its reprinting 54 years later.