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I'm trying to remember a book I read sometime within the last ten years, but although I'm able to recall a fair bit of the story I have no idea of the title or author. I believe it's a "modern" mystery (rather than something by Agatha Christie or someone like that), but it's definitely set in England sometime between the late 19th and mid-20th century.

As I recall, some decades before the time of the story, there was a death where a woman was poisoned (or thought by people to have been poisoned) and a man was suspected. I think the suspect was the vicar (unpopular in town because of his "modern" ways), or perhaps a doctor, and the woman may have been his wife or fiancée. In any case, he was also suspected of having an affair with some girl, perhaps a maid, and this was supposed to have been his motive for murder.

A malicious gossip (I think some kind of religious fanatic) has kept the story alive all these years, and the vicar (?) was ostracized or driven from the town, perhaps to his grave. (I seem to remember a gravestone being vandalized or shunned. Perhaps the girl was also suspected of involvement in the murder and died somehow?)

All of this is only revealed gradually, because something in the present of the story brings it back up, but I don't remember what it is (are there more deaths? someone's will?). Anyway, it turns out the vicar was innocent, both of the affair and the murder. The girl was maybe infatuated with him and made up some story, or she was having an affair with someone else and the rumor was distorted. Did the victim actually commit suicide because she was in love with the man, over the gossip of his affair with the girl? Or was it assisted suicide because she was suffering from some malady? I don't recall precisely. At the bottom there was definitely a story of two lovers who were torn apart by malicious gossip, leading to the death of one or both, and still being maligned by the town decades later.

I also seem to remember that there's only one or two people in town who don't believe in the gossip, one of them a doctor or dentist (or lawyer?), and the other I think an old lady living in the house where it took place (the sister of one of the people involved?). I have a vague recollection that the doctor turns out to have been guilty of something (possibly of facilitating the woman's suicide, or keeping some dying admission secret).

I also seem to remember that the main character (a man, I'm pretty sure; he might be a journalist or attorney of some kind) travels back and forth to this town, presumably from London, several times, and that the whole business has more or less poisoned the atmosphere of the town with guilt/resentment, making it suspicious of outsiders digging into the past. The destructive consequences of village gossip is a major theme.

The main character first gets wind of the story in the inn/boardinghouse/B&B where he's staying or a pub where he's having dinner. I also seem to recall that there's something in the story about music (was the vicar a music lover who introduced new tunes to the services?), but I can't swear to it.

It's NOT:

  • The Murder at the Vicarage (Agatha Christie)
  • The Moving Finger (Agatha Christie)
  • Night at the Mocking Widow (Carter Dickson)
  • 2
    Unnatural Death by Dorothy L Sayers has certain elements in common with the story you're asking about, but there are several discrepancies as well. – verbose Oct 8 '18 at 4:37
  • 1
    The short story "The Lernaean Hydra" from Agatha Christie's collection The Labors of Hercules also fits the bill. – verbose Oct 14 '18 at 6:48
  • Yes to me also it strikes like the tale from Labour of Hercules. – Suresh Ramaswamy Oct 29 '18 at 7:50

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