In The Belting Inheritance from Julian Symons, a long-lost son, thought killed in WWII returns years later to the family mansion to claim his estate. But is he an imposter?
The book’s plot is not original, but it’s the way this story is told which makes The Belting Inheritance so entertaining. The narrator is Christopher, who is orphaned at age twelve and subsequently taken in by his mother’s aunt, the autocratic Lady Wainwright. Lady Wainwright had four sons: Hugh, David, Stephen and Miles. The two eldest boys, Hugh and David were killed in the war, but the younger two–although well into middle-age, still live with their mother. The house is vast, gloomy, and it’s ruled completely by Lady Wainwright. She dominates her sons and brooks no one else’s opinions on any matters.
The story, which is told in retrospect, has a Victorian feel to it, and this is partially due to the Victorian matriarch who supports unemployed sons (of nobility) who can lounge and enjoy lives of leisure. The plot itself, a lost heir who arrives to claim his fortune seems Victorian. Author Julian Symons wisely notes this fact several times in the novel, and even makes a comment about “what Wilkie Collins calls detective fever.” The massive house, Belting, which is marvelously described, seems an edifice from a long-past era, but then Lady Wainwright runs her establishment with old fashioned rules:
But the thing I hated the most was the prevailing gloom. The house was dark, Lady W was mean in small matters, and at the same time in the past she had been told that daytime lamps were better for the eyes than ordinary yellow electric light. The hall and all the corridors, both upstairs and down, were bathed in a funerael blue glow.
Uncle Stephen, a rather petty-minded nasty character lives at Belting with his tweed-sporting, dog-breeder wife Clarissa who bemoans “the impossibility of getting a decent kennel maid.” Since Lady Wainwright’s sons only escaped her in death, Uncle Miles also lives at the house. Lady Wainwright becomes terminally ill and lo and behold a man shows up claiming to be the long-lost David. He has a plausible sounding story and knows facts about Belting and its inhabitants that only a family intimate could possibly know. Stephen and Miles are hostile to David’s claim as they stand to lose a great deal of money, and Clarissa goes as far as to threaten to set her dogs on the man who claims to be David. But Christopher, at first, believes that David is not an imposter.
Family politics are often messy and the plot makes good use of the idea that Christopher may be a Wainwright but he’s still an outsider. When a murder occurs, Christopher becomes more curious about the man who claims to be David, so he begins an investigation of his own which alters his rather protected, privileged world: he discovers that the Wainwrights are not universally liked.
While the story gets to the root of the claimant’s authenticity it’s also a story of a controlling mother who hobbles and isolates her sons by encouraging their artistic pretensions which are supported by remaining at Belting. As the plot develops, Christopher becomes his own person, gains objectivity about his family, and has a romantic adventure. The Belting Inheritance is very entertaining and for crime fans, it’s well-worth reading. It’s marvelous in its characterizations of a fading, privileged family who cling to tradition, brook no criticism, are close knit, but loathe each other:
There was something about the passion with which Stephen tore a bread roll into pieces, the savage loving care with which he dissected a piece of fish, that remains with me still.