My name is Bob Fischer and I am addicted to the Jill Graham Mystery Series.
I thought I could handle it. I thought I could restrict myself to the occasional bout of recreational usage. I was even shamefully snooty about the first book in the series, Jill Graham and the Secret of Druid’s Wood, which I suspected had been written at the height of the Suez crisis before gathering dust in the enigmatic Lesley Chase’s airing cupboard for the best part of two decades. But no – I am sold. A convert. Jill Graham and the Riddle of the Dwarf’s Shadow has proved a Paul on the road to Damascus-style epiphany for me. Or at least a Derrick Winston on the road to Saltbridge-style passing fancy.
On the surface, the Jill Graham universe is adorably twee. Jill is an intrepid 16-year-old mainstay of Shayle, an idyllic rural village in a diplomatically non-specific corner of Middle England. Her Dad is the editor of the Saltbridge and District Echo, where her older brother John has also enjoyed gainful employment. Her best friend Susan works at Saltbridge District Library, and John fancies her. Jill’s life is a giddy round of dances at Saltbridge Pavilion, while her Mum stays at home and bakes fruitcakes. She has horse called Conker. It would seem that those seeking a more brutally realistic vision of the bucolic lifestyle should simply bite the bullet and check out Beatrix Potter.
But hold your horses. Even poor old Conker. The startling conclusion to this book features Jill being left for dead in the bricked-up remains of a ruined Manor House with the festering corpse of an assassinated jewel thief, and it’s testament to the literary skills of the elusive Chase that these eyebrow-raising detours into the macabre never feel incongruous or inappropriate. This is deliciously accomplished “cosy murder”; the 1970s Junior Fiction equivalent of Midsomer Murders or Shakespeare & Hathaway. You can certainly spot the Jill Graham wrong ‘uns a mile off – they’re the scruffy newcomers to Shayle who smoke and haven’t shaved since last Tuesday.
The plot is kickstarted, splendidly, by that most 1970s of comedy staples: a lodger. Although arguably there are few chuckles to be from the congenital heart defect that leads to the death of the mysterious Mr Prescott in the spare bedroom of the respectable Mrs Brewster. Nevertheless, when Jill is tasked with returning his overdue library book to assistant librarian Susan, she is set on the trail of an hilariously cryptic puzzle. Prescott, it transpires, has underlined selected letters in the 1895 History of Shayle and Fallowfield to reveal the following cryptic rhyme:
Where saintly figures trod the ground
The dwarf’s black shadow falls
Over the gnome on his mushroom stool
Silently watching the waterless pool
Wherein the rainbow drowned
Almost a year on from the events of Jill Graham and the Secret of Druid’s Wood, Jill has gained a taste for both adventure and puzzle-solving – and also a degree of local celebrity, thanks to the breathless reportage of the aforementioned Derrick Winston, yet another young employee of the Saltbridge and District Echo. Thanks to the rising tide of elaborate kidnaps and murder plots in the Shayle and Fallowfield area, this esteemed organ has clearly become the area’s primary employer, and – by Book No. 4 of the series – I’m fully expecting Jill’s mother to be writing a daily baking column, with Susan curating the paper’s expanding picture archive of dead lodgers and jewel thieves. Inevitably, Jill – with Susan, Derrick, John and the whole adorable mob in tow – cracks the code and finds herself at the heart of a deadly race to recover the illicit spoils of a London jewel heist.
The Jill Graham stories are elegantly and economically written. Eschewing allegory, they boast the straightforward plotting and well-heeled brio of contemporaneous Children’s Film Foundation productions. But Chase has an evocative turn of phrase, particularly with regard to rural decay. In the abandoned Manor House of the story’s conclusion, “brambles rioted with tangled confusion at the base of cracked and crumbling walls”, and “only the crumbling arch remained, gaping like a toothless yawn in an aged face”. The niggling loneliness of head librarian Mr Slattery is a touching diversion, too: an invigoratingly melancholy corner of a tiny world that nevertheless feels increasingly fully-formed and irresistibly alluring.
Jill’s character is also refreshing. In an era of children’s entertainment when female characters were often either token sidekicks for the male leads or lads-by-proxy tomboys, Jill is firmly at the centre of her own books: a fearlessly independent and intelligent protagonist who leaves patronising male companions trailing in her wake. She’s actually perhaps a tad too fearless – she is intimidated by literally nothing and nobody, whereas a subtle streak of vulnerability might have added a little depth. As it is, seemingly her only achilles heel is a slight sensitivity about her weight, particularly when Derrick tactfully suggests her teenage love of ice cream and Mars Bars is likely to leave her “as fat as Mrs Brewster”.
But perhaps the most interesting development is the smattering of very 1970s concerns that were entirely absent from the first book in the series. Jill Graham and the Secret Of Druid’s Wood may well have been lying untouched in the Chase family’s spare room since the days of Devon Loch and the Busby Babes, but The Riddle Of The Dwarf’s Shadow has a distinct whiff of the Three-Day Week and Don Revie’s Leeds United. There are now supermarkets in Saltbridge, and they are feeling an unexpected economic pinch: “I wanted some raisins, but there weren’t any anywhere,” complains Mrs Graham as yet another fruitcake creaks wearily in the oven. “Shopping’s getting worse and worse”.
Elsewhere, there are “gangs of yobs” around the Old Roman Fort, and consternation at the council’s demolition of much-loved homes with “a bit o’ground” in favour of “blocks of offices” and “box-like flats”. Derrick, of course, chases the council for comment, but “each official that he interviewed referred him to another, who passed him onto someone else. Eventually, when he thought he’d reached the person in authority… it was to find that he was away that day at a conference, and therefore unavailable”. There are six books in the Jill Graham series, and I fully intend to read them all. And although I’ve kept myself pure, refusing even to look up the titles of the remaining stories, I’ll now be slightly disappointed – given this accelerating rate of social awareness – if Book No. 6 isn’t Jill Graham and the Flashpoint of the Fallowfield Riots (1981).
POINT OF ORDER: I’m still utterly in the dark when it comes to information about Lesley Chase. I’ve been unable to find a single scrap of information about (I assume) him, or indeed any evidence that he ever wrote anything other than the six Jill Graham mysteries. Can anyone help at all?
FURTHER POINT OF ORDER: Magnificently, Jill Graham and the Riddle of the Dwarf’s Shadow is the only book I’ve ever read where the inside cover blurb reveals the entire plotline, including the story’s conclusion. No, really. It does. Devoted Jill Graham spoilerphobes, avert your eyes now:
MUSTINESS REPORT: 5/10. My original 1975 hardback copy was bought during a February 2020 visit to a wonderful North Yorkshire book emporium that, sadly, seems to have remained resolutely closed throughout lockdowns and easings alike. It has a deliciously vague whiff of vintage 1970s mustiness, and pages the colour of the Revie-era away kit.