St. Albans Pageant, 1907: Queen Elizabeth at Gorhambury.

Courtesy of St. Albans Museums.

Murder at the Pageant

It is known – at least among the small community of people engaged in research on pageants – that these events featured in fictional literature from time to time. The best-known example is Virginia Woolf’s novel Between the Acts, published in 1941, which features a pageant in the grounds of an English country house. Here a pageant is the centrepiece of a work of fiction, and pageants appeared elsewhere, even in books for children: Richmal Crompton’s ‘Just William’ took part in a school pageant in a story published in 1922.

However, I did not know about Victor L. Whitechurch’s 1930 novel Murder at the Pageant until an eagle-eyed friend (who has blogged for this site before) spotted it and sent it to me as a Christmas present.

Murder at the pageant cover
Front cover from 1931 - out of copyright.

Google tells me that Whitechurch (1868-1933) was a clergyman and prolific author of crime fiction, best known – insofar as he is known at all – as the creator of the detective Thorpe Hazell. He wrote nearly 30 books, with Murder at the Pageant being among the last, and not featuring his most famous creation.

Victor L Whitechurch
Unknown photographer - immediate source: Project Gutenberg Australia , as published in Thrilling Stories of the Railway, 1912 - Out of copyright.

The novel tells of a murder and theft (of a string of pearls) that both took place at a country house, Frimley Manor, at the time of a historical pageant staged in the grounds in 1929. The pageant is not described in any detail, but featured Queen Anne, carried on a sedan chair. Indeed, the novel opens with the footnote to the pageant programme, declaring that this was the very chair on which the real Anne was carried on her visit to the house in 1705.

This fictional pageant was produced by Captain Roger Bristow, a rather mysterious character who was formerly in the secret service, and who seems to fancy himself as a detective. Bristow played John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, in the pageant. The regular police do most of the investigative work following the murder of Jasper Hurst, a tenant of the owner of Frimley Manor, whose body is found late at night on the sedan chair that had carried the queen 224 years earlier. Hurst had played a Puritan in the pageant, which was held to raise funds for the local hospital.

As of today, I have only reached p. 78 of 268, so if any readers know what happens in the end, and who committed the murder, then please don’t leave any spoilers. It seems that the pageant itself will not feature much more in the story, but it’s an enjoyable crime novel and I’m intrigued to know what will become of the various characters.

Mark Freeman

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