Sheila Pim wrote her first detective novel, Common or Garden Crime, to satisfy her father’s thirst for detective stories, the publication of which had been curtailed thanks to the paper shortages which affected neutral Ireland during the “Emergency”—or World War II, as it was called in most other parts of the globe. The book turned into something of a collaboration, at least when it came to research, with Sheila and her accountant father pooling their knowledge of gardening and sharing details about the habits of their Dublin neighbors.
Such attention to detail is important, since the puzzle is very much secondary to character and place in Pim’s detective novels. Her amateur sleuths are not the usual meddlesome busybodies or smug dilettantes so common to the period, but generally sensible women who go to the police only when they think they have good reason to do so and who would never dream of interfering with the progress of a criminal investigation. When Inspector Lancey remarks to Ivor that his Aunt Lucy is in a minority in Ireland in her respect for law and order, he matter-of-factly explains, “Oh, we’re very Anglo.” Lancey knows exactly what he means. After all, Ireland is a country, as Pim points out, in which doing jail time is not considered a disgrace given the number of prominent citizens who have been incarcerated from time to time for political reasons. It’s no wonder, Pim observes, that Ireland leads the world in prison reform.
Pim’s detective novels are unique for the period in other aspects as well. They follow an unusual format by presenting two non-adversarial parallel investigations. While the Guard—Ireland’s version of Scotland Yard—pursues the killer using tried and true police routine, Pim’s amateur sleuth, privy to many of her neighbors’ secrets, quietly conducts her own inquiries, usually arriving at the same conclusion as the police, whom she generally presents in a favorable light.
Although representatives of the Civic Guards appear in all four of Pim’s detective novels, it would be a mistake to label this quartet a conventional series or even to call them police procedurals. Each is a stand-alone detective novel meant to be read independently. Lancey and his crew, with a few modest exceptions, are ciphers shown only in the exercise of their professional duties.
Pim’s books might better be described as novels of manners in which the lives of perfectly ordinary people are disrupted by an extraordinary event—murder. Oddly enough, however much Sheila’s father relished his thrillers, Pim was one of the first novelists in a country famous for its storytellers to attain any degree of fame as a mystery writer, and only the last of her four mysteries, A Hive of Suspects, was published in the United States. Common or Garden Crime appeared in 1945, followed a year later by Creeping Venom (the only book in which the amateur sleuth is solely responsible for solving the mystery), A Brush with Death (1950) and A Hive of Suspects (1952). Pim’s relatively short career as a mystery writer ended a year before her countrywoman Eilis Dillon, primarily a children’s book author, published the first of her three highly praised but also relatively obscure mysteries, all of which were eventually published in the U.S.
Why neither Dillon nor Pim was able to obtain the same degree of commercial success in America that was enjoyed by many of their sisters in crime across the Irish Sea in England is difficult to explain, unless you subscribe to the conventional wisdom that American readers are interested only in mysteries set at home or in England. St. Patrick’s Day aside, most Americans know as much about Irish life and society as they do about conditions in Canada. Whereas most Americans recognize the name Scotland Yard, only a few could identify the Guard as its Irish counterpart. Even today only a handful of Irish mysteries appear on the U.S. market, and the most successful of these, the Inspector McGarr series by Bartholomew Gill, is written by an American of Irish descent.
Anglo or not, it is the Irishness of Pim’s books, such as her portrait of day-to-day village life during World War II in Common or Garden Crime, that gives them their special flavor. Contemporary critics greeted her mysteries with enthusiasm. “Do some more, Miss Pim,” pleaded the Sphere, describing her books as having “excellent characterization, considerable humour and a nice appreciation of what is thrilling in a murder mystery and what is not.” Our favorite review, from the Observer, called her mysteries “Vivacious as a wall lizard.” We’re not altogether sure what the writer meant but we’ve certainly never run across another detective novel described in such terms. But it was The Times Literary Supplement that best singled out those qualities that put Pim in a class all her own when it praised her second book for the same “humour and shrewd observation of small town Irish life” as was found in her first effort. These mysteries of manners as well as her mainstream novels of modern Irish life led critics to proclaim her the Angela Thirkell of Ireland, and there is a good bit of Trollope as well as Austen in her perceptive portraits of a particular time and place in her native land.
Pim was one of the first mystery writers to fully integrate a gardening background into her novels. Not only are horticultural details pivotal to the plots but they govern the characters’ daily lives. For Pim, as well as her protagonists, gardening was not just a hobby but a necessary (and rewarding) way of life. The bounty of the kitchen garden was a constant source of fruits and vegetables for the table, especially welcome during the lean years of the Emergency, and the flower garden was not only esthetically pleasing but was the basis for such social diversions as the flower show held at the Bexes in Common or Garden Crime. Like most of her friends and neighbors, Lucy Bex knows the Latin names for all the plants in her garden, appreciates the value of a nicely composting manure heap and is familiar with the best ways of putting food by for the winter. Throughout the story she is nearly as preoccupied with bottling her tomato harvest as she is with uncovering the murderer.
There appears to be a great deal of the author’s own character in her heroines, especially Lucy Bex. Like Lucy, who keeps house for her widowed brother Linnaeus and helped raise her nephew Ivor, Sheila Pim never married and had to make any number of professional sacrifices to make a pleasant home for her father Frank, a widower, and her developmentally disabled two-year-older brother Tom. In spite of these hardships, Pim evidently enjoyed the same kind of loving family atmosphere that permeates the Bex household.
It’s a little harder to reconcile Pim, the birthright Quaker, with the Lucy who applauds the eventual execution of the murderer and supports Ivor’s decision to join the Royal Air Force. But those were different as well as difficult times, and the Bex family seemed to march to a different drummer than their neighbors in many other aspects. Much of the appeal of Common or Garden Crime lies in its portrait of life in Ireland, only a few years free of English rule, during World War II. The Protestants and Catholics of Clonmeen mix with only a few problems, so long as they confine themselves to garden talk and are of the same social class, butAnglo families like the Bexes have cast their lot with England while their Catholic counterparts cannot forget the oppression suffered at the hands of the English Parliament.
Pim herself was born in Dublin on September 21, 1909, of a Quaker father and an English mother. Her twin brother Andrew survived only two weeks. Her older brother, Tom, two years her senior, was born developmentally disabled and would need constant care throughout his 57 years. Sheila was educated at the French School in Bray, County Wicklow, and “finished” at La Casita in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she perfected her French. In 1928, she went to Girton College, Cambridge, where she took a Tripos in French and Italian. This was apparently one of the happiest periods of her life, according to her friends at the Historical Society of the Religious Order of Friends. This euphoria is reflected in an oil painting done of her at the time, showing her as “a long slim figure with long brown hair down her back, dressed in a pretty summer frock, and a little smile showing her sense of humour.”
But the good times were soon to end. Shortly before finals, Margaret Pim took ill and Sheila returned to Dublin to look after her mother and provide some diversion for Tom. During this period, she worked for a short time as a typist for the Dublin Royal Society. When her mother died in 1940, Sheila was forced to abandon many of her own projects, including botanical studies, to run her father’s household. This situation was further complicated when Sheila herself took ill and underwent a long recuperation, which led to her first book, a slender volume called Getting Better: A Handbook for Convalescents, published in 1943, while she and her family were living in Campfield, Dundrum, Dublin. This is the same locale and year in which Common or Garden Crime is set and indeed there are sections in which she offers advice on how to handle shortages during the Emergency.
The Pim family lived in a large Georgian house replete with a large walled garden much like that of the Bexes, where they grew fruits and vegetables and where Sheila began to develop her knowledge of horticulture, which eventually led to her column “Gardening Notes” for the Irish Times. She also contributed to a specialty magazine, My Garden, for a number of years. Her first unsolicited submission differed from other manuscripts submitted to the magazine, according to editor Theodore A. Stephens, as it was “on rather better paper than usual, typed very expertly and had obviously been written specially for My Garden and not just for any gardening paper. An accompanying note asked for the favour of consideration and, if approved, suggested a fee (very modest) which would be acceptable to the writer.” It’s a note that one can well imagine Lucy Bex or Hester Fennelly of A Brush with Death writing. Many of those essays were eventually collected in Bringing the Garden Indoors (1949), a slender volume that offered advice on how to extend and enjoy the fruits of the garden throughout the year.
She was fond of reading the Boys Own papers of the nineteenth century which she found “packed with curious information of a practical sort.” Another hobby was the collection of slang, clichés, and amusing habits which she found in thrillers and in popular American magazines. Some of this material was used to entertain Tom, who continued to need constant diversion.
When her father died in 1958, Sheila moved with Tom to Old Conna, Bray, where they were forced to make do without resident domestic help. About this time Sheila once again was hit by a major illness. As a result, she encouraged Tom to be a bit more independent and, for the first time in his life, he learned to travel about town on his own and to use the public library. Sheila herself volunteered to run what passed for a museum at the Friends Historical Society.
During this period, she published her last mainstream novel, The Sheltered Garden (1965), a witty novel of manners with a few mystery elements but a great deal of gardening. She was also busy researching her most famous work, The Wood and The Trees, a biography of Augustine Henry, an Irish doctor who became one of the foremost plant collectors of his age and co-wrote the definitive book on the trees of Great Britain and Ireland. It was published in 1966 and revised and reissued in 1984.
In 1964, Tom was killed in an accident and Sheila became free for the first time in her life to pursue her own interests full-time, but oddly enough these did not include writing fiction. Instead, she threw herself into her work at the Friends Historical Society, researching and conserving archival embroideries and portraits. She also began what was to be a lifelong commitment to improving the lot of the Irish Travellers. Ostracized by much of Irish society, the Travellers are a nomadic people native to Ireland who follow a gypsy-like life and speak their own language, Shelta, which is closer to English than to Gaelic. Travellers are sometimes known as Tinkers—now considered a derogatory term—partly because many of them worked as tinsmiths, as well as itinerant farm laborers and door-to-door salesmen. Today there are some 24,000 Travellers in the Republic of Ireland, 1,500 in Northern Ireland, 15,000 in England and 7,000 in the United States. In addition to their traditional occupations, many modern Travellers are involved in scrap and antiques dealing.
In the mid-1960s, just as the civil rights movement was erupting in the United States, many Irish began to protest the discriminatory treatment afforded Travellers, who were resisting attempts to force them to abandon their traditional life-styles and be assimilated into the general Irish population. Pim became active in the Travellers’ civil rights movement, taking many Traveller children into her home and eventually adopting an entire family which had been abandoned to the care of their travelling grandfather. She studied Traveller culture and shared her knowledge of their life-style with as many people as possible as she watched her adopted family grow, prosper and marry.
In Sheila Pim’s last years, her growing deafness forced her to move into a sheltered housing complex where she still managed to grow a few herbs by her door. She fell ill and died on December 16, 1995, at the age of 86. In writing about Augustine Henry, Pim noted that even though he was neither empire-builder nor gunman nor agitator, he still put together a remarkable life. The same could be said for Sheila Pim. In a life filled with adversity she still reaped a bountiful harvest, as a dutiful daughter, a caring sister, an expert gardener, an advocate for social justice and surely the most accomplished writer of Irish detective fiction of her age. The lines from George Herbert that she quoted to describe Henry would serve equally well as her own epitaph:
“Only the sweet and virtuous soul
like seasoned timber, never gives.”
Tom & Enid Schantz