Regular readers of this blog know that I’ve read quite a few titles from British Library Crime Classics, published by Poisoned Pen Press. The delightful Family Matters from author Anthony Rolls (real name C. E Vulliamy 1886-1971) is one of the strongest titles in the series. Yes there’s a murder, but the structure and content of this highly entertaining tale is quite different from the usual. The introduction from Martin Edwards gives an overview of the career of Anthony Rolls, and mentions that he wrote his crime novels during two very specific times of his life. Sadly all of his other work (apart from Scarweather) is oop and used copies are either impossible to find or pricey.
Family Matters is a domestic crime novel and concerns the troubled household of the Kewdinghams who live at Number 6 Wellington Avenue in the town of Shufflecester. Robert Arthur Kewdingham, a man from a solid middle class background, married Bertha, the daughter of a Canadian Wesleyan minster and a French governess. The Kewdinghams, with a couple of exceptions, are not happy about the match (especially the French part), and don’t consider Bertha good enough. Robert and Bertha have one child, and also living at Number 6 is Robert’s crotchety elderly father who looks at his daughter-in-law with dislike and writes her nasty notes with very pointed quotations.
Following the economic collapse, Robert, an engineer, lost his job. The Kewdinghams have modest independent means, but there’s never enough money. Robert, now unemployed, has turned to his many hobbies: The Great Kewdingham Collection, cabinets and “precarious piles of cardboard boxes” litter the house.
Inside these receptacles there was an astounding medley of junk: bits of coral, broken pots, beetles and butterflies impaled on pieces of cork or stuck on cards, odd fossils, bones, brasses, dried flowers, birds’ eggs, little figures in soapstone and ivory, ushabtis from the tombs of Egypt, fragments of uncertain things, weird scraps of metal, badges, buttons, mouldy coins and innumerable varieties of suchlike trash.
These days we’d call Robert a hoarder, but poor Bertha must tolerate other ‘eccentricities;’ her husband’s political activities (he thinks Shufflecester is “full of Bolsheviks“), he’s a hypochondriac who medicates himself with bizarre potions, and he has a “vast library of occult books and magazines, which he was constantly reading.” Add this to his belief that he lived an earlier life as “the High Priest of Atlantis, Keeper of Wisdom.”
He was now in middle age, without a profession, impecunious, full of absurd notions, a wretched hypochondriac, irritable, silly and resourceless.
Life at Number 6 is fraught with “incessant bickering,” and several outsiders, including the dapper little Doctor Bagge, and relative John Harrigall, feel bitterly sorry for the attractive Bertha who is trapped in an insufferable marriage to a selfish, egomaniac who has long passed the label of eccentric to mental case.
Friends of Robert, Mr and Mrs Chaddlewick also visit, and Mrs Chaddlewick with her cooing flattery and seemingly “amiable vacancy,” both encourages Robert’s foolishness and fosters domestic strife. It’s testament to Bertha’s tenacity and arguably her inflexibility that she refuses to ‘manage’ Robert in the same way. With criticism from Robert’s relatives and vicious notes from her father-in-law, it’s not surprising that Bertha should seek solace from the handsome John Harrigall. As Robert’s tirades escalate and become more violent, Bertha begins to consider murdering her husband.
Family Matters is an unusual crime novel for its structure and its conclusion, but it’s also separated from the herd by its attitude towards women. The court at Shufflecester, for example, is “bleak and hideous,” and we are told that “it is only possible to find this degree of squalor, of neglect and of ugliness, in courts of law–places where the sane influence of women has not yet penetrated.” There’s also mention of sex with a hint dropped of “three hours in a disused gravel-pit.” Anthony Rolls seems to understand the lonely, treacherous path to murder trod by the otherwise respectable member of society:
The inception of the idea of murder is not immediately recognised. Such an idea enters the mind in disguise-a new arrival in a sinister mask, not willingly entertained and yet by no means to be expelled. Or, in more scientific terms, it is introduced by a sort of auto-hypnosis, the mere repetition of the thoughts or words not immediately connected with personal action. Between the highly civilised individual and the act of murder there are so many barriers, so nay conventions and teachings-or so many illusions.
In the introduction, Martin Edwards argues that Rolls had good ideas but sometimes couldn’t sustain plots. That weakness is not evident here. With its caustic look at society, marriage and norms Family Matters is an impudent, lively novel, a delight to read.
Someone .. please bring The Vicar’s Experiments back into print.