Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Penguin no. 90: The Sanfield Scandal
by Richard Keverne

Faith had long puzzled over the meaning of this stairway. It had had little use. Its steps were unworn, and it was clearly of much more recent recent construction than the keep. She had consulted old Nicholas Sanfield's "Speculations" in the Ipswich Library, but he did not mention it, though he gave her a clue when he wrote of the Sanfield family as "Firm adherents of the Popish faith" in Elizabethan days. The chamber over the chapel was probably a "priest hole," and the staircase provided a wonderful way of escape in times of persecution. It would be hard to discover with a fire burning on the huge hearth below, yet easy of access to anyone on league with the servants.

Richard Keverne sets his story in a small Suffolk town named Burgrave, a word used to refer to the ruler of a castle or a fortified town and relevant in the context of this story because his fictional town features an old Norman keep which is now in ruins. The floors are gone, and only the outer walls remain, but these walls hide a series of stairways and small rooms, and as the passage above makes clear, they also conceal a priest hole, a relic of Elizabethan times which is integral to the story Keverne tells. The old castle is now part of the Sanfield estate, and sits adjacent to Tower House, a home built after an earlier building had burnt to the ground.

But Tower House has remained untenanted for many years now. Sir Jeremy Sanfield's departure of a decade ago was triggered by the events of one weekend, referred to here as the Sanfield scandal, although it is a scandal which seems to have been successfully suppressed. A house party had culminated in the death of his son Jerry, recently returned from the war, and probably the victim of suicide. In a determined effort to avoid publicity and guard the family name, the true circumstances of the death were hushed up along with the details of whatever else had taken place that weekend, although there were rumours of a theft and an attempted fraud. Sir Jeremy Sanfield committed the facts to paper and locked them away in his lawyer's safe before leaving for Canada with his remaining son. He had since died, and ownership of the Sanfield estate, and of the locked-away papers, had passed to his son John.

Concealment is a motif throughout this story, there in the priest hole, and in the buried scandal, and in the behaviour of many of the characters who are intent on concealing their motives and their true identities. But it is most manifest in the obsession which all these characters share in avoiding publicity so as to safeguard reputations. It means that the police are almost never called in, and that efforts are taken by normally law-abiding people to ensure that the full story does not emerge when the coroner investigates two suspicious deaths.

And it seems assumed that these are actions with which the reader will readily sympathise, which is perhaps some marker of how views have changed over time. Avoiding scandal trumps every other consideration, including the imposition of justice, and the need to protect others from becoming victims of similar crimes. But this seemed incomprehensible: Sir Jeremy Sanfield's actions of a decade earlier may have prevented a scandal, but they have allowed at least one person to continue unhindered on a life devoted to blackmail and fraud, and rather than solving a problem they have simply created a new one for his heir. They have also meant that many other people have been similarly duped during the intervening years.

Sir Jeremy Sanfield's written account is stolen. Blackmail seems the likely motive for the theft, but the revealed details inspire the the criminals to contemplate something far more ambitious. A woman turns up in the village of Burgrave a few weeks later with a story about a book she is planning and a need to sketch the castle ruin from within, but she is simply the public face of a group of people intent on recovering the necklace stolen during that weekend a decade earlier which is now known, courtesy of the stolen account, to be hidden somewhere within the walls of the ruined keep. But Tower House has been let to the apparently disinterested Hilary Borden during the intervening fortnight, and he sets about investigating the activities of the woman and her unknown accomplices, assisted by one of the locals.

I thought the narrative was a little confused, and that there was too much reliance on explanations given right at the end, and these didn't always satisfactorily explain what had occurred. And it was always difficult to take the planned crime seriously, because the criminals' actions seemed to involve a lot of planning, but very little action. There was so much booking into expensive hotels, and so many agitated conversations over restaurant lunches, that it was difficult to believe there was ever going to be much profit in the endeavour once they had sold the necklace, split the money between themselves, and paid all the expenses. In retrospect, the only interesting aspect was this overarching obsession with keeping things from public knowledge, because right to the end there was never any consideration of the moral implications of letting these blackmailers continue their activities unimpeded. It seems that the case was successfully resolved, if judged by the values of the time, simply because it was kept out of the papers.

First published 1929; published in Penguin Books 1937.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 410: Artifex Intervenes

Richard Keverne reviewed elsewhere:
The Passing Tramp on Carteret's Cure (Penguin no. 740) 


  1. It does sound complicated! I'm guessing the narrative shifts around between the different characters? Is Hilary Borden a sympathetic character?

    1. Hi Lisa,

      It is one of those difficult-to-review-books structured so that everything is revealed at the end, and in which not knowing much about the characters as you read through, and particularly not knowing whether they are sympathetic or not, is integral to the plot. It is also one of those books which people are fairly unlikely to read, as Richard Keverne, who wrote quite a number of Penguins, seems largely forgotten these days.



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