Tag Archives: 20th century Britain

Helping with Inquiries: Celia Dale

“The slivers of ice which were her buried resentments against Leonard strangely hardening rather than melting in her astonishingly found new climate.”

I can’t remember where I first heard the name of author Celia Dale, or how I came across her books, but a recent dig through the TBR stacks led me to grab Helping With Inquiries, a novel from 1979. At first I thought I was reading a police procedural, but no, this is a deeply psychological character study–a tale of bitterness, isolation, control and motivation for murder.

helping with inquiries

Helping with Inquiries (and what a great innocuous title that is) begins with Leonard Henderson, a married man in his 60s, a creature of absolute rigid habit, an advertising manager at an old-fashioned dying company, arriving back home after a day’s work. Leonard and his wife, Enid live in a pleasant, semi-detached home in a quiet, middle-class neighbourhood. It’s a terrible shock, then, for Leonard to return home to Cherrywood Crescent and find his wife Enid, a woman that no one seems to really know or talk to, battered to death in the front room.

The Hendersons have lived next door to the their neighbours, the Thorpes for over 20 years, and although they share a “thin party-wall” the two couples only ever exchanged a nod or the few odd words. The Thorpes heard nothing, saw nothing, and are in a state of shock that something like this could have happened in their quiet street.

D.S Simpson and DI Hogarth, two very different men with two very different styles investigate the case. There’s a definite good-cop-bad cop game afoot with Simpson’s strong social skills and affability and the laconic Hogarth who prefers to ambush suspects and witnesses with rudeness. Whereas Simpson is “delighted” by human nature “as intriguing manifestations of the bizarre,” Hogarth is interested in motive only in as much as it furthers the investigation

This view of his profession gave him a majestic insensitivity which was often useful, outraging or stunning people into shows of emotion that under gentler handling they might have controlled. While they erupted or collapsed, a mind as shrewd if not as intelligent as any judge’s ticked away inside Hogarth’s balding head. If there were something to be noticed, assessed, slotted into place, Hogarth would do it.

As the police detectives poke around the Henderson home, they discover that while no one seems to really know Enid (she has no friends, no social life) she was a magpie, “her untidiness had been concealed, stuffed into drawers and cupboards.”  According to Leonard his wife was “a middle-aged woman, –a domesticated, simple, not very clever housewife,” and yet someone hated her enough to beat her to death. But is this a random crime? There’s an alley that runs along the back of the houses. Did some “maniac” wander into the home and murder Enid? 

As the novel unfolds, a couple of suspects emerge. Leonard is required to make a written statement, and Leonard’s short, succinct sentences are then juxtaposed with the history of Leonard’s miserable childhood, dominated by a cold, cruel and domineering woman while Leonard’s father cringed in the background. As Leonard’s statement later continues to explain how he met Enid, author Celia Dale cleverly reconstructs their courtship and married life. Enid is dead when the book opens, and yet her character is constructed in detail, so that just who she really was is clearly evident.

Yes, this is a crime book, but it’s brilliantly constructed with Dale showing just how much can be accomplished by a crime novel, and while bulky DI Hogarth may not care about motive, readers do. Dale creates a fascinating picture of domestic life and an inexorable case of murder.

Finally, Dale can write. There are some marvellous moments here–most I can’t include due to spoilers. At one point, Leonard lands a job, after the war, at Forbes’ for Furnishing.

Behind their majestic frontage decline and fall could be sensed. The Board was ageing, the holding company impatient for them to be gone; real estate was more real now than Forbes’ for Furnishing. There was no future there and Leonard knew it with a bitterness that burned deeply behind his cool facade. The Advertising Department consisted of no more than Leonard himself, whatever trainee youth was going through the store, and a typist. The advertisement copy was written by an outside agency and appeared mainly in appropriate local and provincial newspapers. It was, he knew sourly, a dead end job. But at least, he was, at last, Manager.

Enid’s happiness was tactlessly great. She brought a bottle of sparkling white wine with which to celebrate his first week, kissed him and pressed her face against his for a moment. ‘I’m so glad for you Lenny darling. It’s such a relief. I know how anxious you’ve been all these months. And being in an old-fashioned firm’s much nicer really, isn’t it. even if it’s not quite so important.’

In a way she was right. Shutting his mind to everything he might have preferred, he sank himself into the work, treating his tiny department as though it were the most important in the firm, himself its ruler. So the years settled in Cherrywood Crescent, muffling all sounds. 

The book is also a snapshot of its times with reference to Mrs Woodhouse, Women’s Lib and bottom-pinching considered normal behaviour at work.

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Weekend at Thrackley: Alan Melville (1934)

“This is getting too much like one of those gangster films for my liking.”

The gathering of a motley assortment of guests at a remote country house is a staple of crime fiction, but when author Alan Melville adds humour to the mix, the plot suddenly becomes light and breezy. Result: Weekend at Thrackley is a delightful romp.

Jim Henderson, unemployed for three years, and living in a boarding house, is down on his luck and short of funds when he receives an unexpected invitation to Thrackley, a country home for the weekend. He doesn’t know Edwin Carson, the man who sent the invitation, but beggars can’t be choosers, and Jim thinks that at least he’ll be in for a mini-holiday in Surrey and free grub. Why not accept?

But then Jim talks to his friend, Freddie Usher, who has also received an invitation, and the two friends exchange notes. According to Usher, Carson, who has a shady reputation, as “the greatest living authority on precious stones” is interested in the Usher diamonds, and has requested that Usher bring the diamonds to Thrackley so that Carson can compare the Usher diamonds to some in his own collection.  It seems a foolish idea to agree to Carson’s request since it’s rumoured that Carson may have acquired his collection by nefarious means. Jim is appalled:“You’re not going to?”

“If I can get them out of pawn and give them a wash and a brush up in time. Why not?”

“Of all the blithering, nit-witted –“

But Usher assures Jim that Carson is now “reformed,” plus he’s packing a revolver along with his razor and toothbrush.”

A handful of guests gather at Thrackley for the weekend. The home is isolated and has a depressing, suffocating setting. Along with the host, Carson, his lovely daughter, and a sinister, thuggish butler, there’s Mr and Miss Brampton, Lady Stone, and Miss Raoul, an actress. There’s a commonality with the guests: they all possess a disgusting number of jewels. The exception is Jim, who has  a modest private income but little beyond that. He can’t understand why he was invited, but Carson claims that Jim’s father, (a man Jim knows little about) was his best friend and that they met in prison. This is all news to Jim, and he’s stunned by the revelation.

So here we have a shady jewel collector who has invited jewel laden visitors for the weekend. We more or less can guess why these people have been invited, but the fun here in the story comes from its humorous approach. Jim, as the main character, sniffs out some bizarre goings-on almost immediately and then he enlightens his friend. These two men stumble towards the truth, and a great deal of the novel’s lively wit is derived from their energy and attitude towards life. Jim, for example, considers Lady Catherine Stone, a “dangerous type of woman. The type that spends her days and other people’s days in Getting Up Things; on fifty-three committees, he had heard, and perpetually organizing charity matinees and midnight cabarets and chain teas for vague and unknown institutions.”

According to Freddie, Lady Stone makes an appointment to talk about “the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Aged Organizers of Charity Bazaars, or some such title,” but she fails to meet him. Where did she disappear to? Carson has an explanation, but it seems suspicious at best. Freddie and Jim decide to begin their own investigations which is assisted by the fact that Carson drives off with Raoul, who is “plastered with good jewellery given to her by bad men.” Carson, according to Jim, “is a “dirty old devil,” who tries to isolate Raoul in order to make a pass at her.

I read Death of Anton from the same author, and while I enjoyed it, I preferred Weekend at Thrackley–the opening scenes with Jim’s landlady were brilliant and set the jolly tone for the rest of the bookAccording to the introduction from Martin Edwards, this novel was extremely successful and represented a turning point in the author’s career. Melville went on to have a career in entertainment and given the wonderfully light, well-paced tone of the novel, I’m not surprised.

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Fire in the Thatch: E.C. R. Lorac (1946)

“There are very few men who have not got something to hide.”

In E.C.R. Lorac’s Fire in the Thatch, it’s Britain 1944, post Dunkirk and the war rages on. While German bombs may seem a world away, life is Devon is impacted. Colonel Saint Cyres still manages his expansive Devon estate, and out doors, enjoying the countryside, the Colonel can, momentarily, forget his troubles. The Colonel’s son, Denis, is being held as a prisoner of war by the Japanese, and in his absence, Denis’s wife, London society woman June, giddy, selfish and superficial, has relocated, reluctantly to Devon. June makes the move primarily for financial reasons, but Colonel Saint Cyres and his daughter Anne, who dislike June and can’t understand why on earth Denis married her,  persuaded her to make the move for her small child’s sake, but also as a protective measure.

June has lived in Devon now for six months, and “it’s difficult to say who disliked the arrangement the most–June or her father-in-law.”  The situation becomes even more strained when June insists that her father-in-law rent out a vacant cottage to her affluent London friend, Tommy Gressingham, but there’s already a lot of juicy gossip floating around about June’s relationship with Gressingham, plus the Colonel is opposed to renting out country property “as a wealthy man’s plaything, to be used on weekends.” The Colonel wants the long-neglected cottage, Little Thatch, to be used for farming once again, so when Nicholas Vaughan, an ex-naval man, recovering from an eye-injury, and passionate about farming, wants to rent Little Thatch, the Colonel very quickly agrees.

Nicholas Vaughan is the ideal tenant. In the prime of life, energetic and enthusiastic, he very quickly restores the cottage and the land. The Saint-Cyres are very pleased with their new tenant, but then tragedy strikes….

Fire in the Thatch is an excellent entry in the British Library Crime Classics series.  Yes, there’s a murder which must be solved by Scotland Yard’s Inspector Macdonald, but the novel is also a testament to life during wartime: the strains of separation, rationing, evacuations, and also the opportunistic moneymen who are sitting safely on the sidelines. Life is changing in Britain, but more changes are still to come. Colonel Saint Cyres, chivalrous and naive, is emblematic of the soon-to-pass landed gentry who turn away from the idea of change, while Gressingham and his coterie of card-playing drinking, affluent carpet-baggers, welcome change, pursue it as they know money can be made.

The descriptions of Devon seem to be written with genuine love of the lush countryside. There are many references made to the shortage of labour, so the land is farmed by wizened old men. All the young-to-early-middle-aged men are gone, which makes Gressingham’s circle even more of an anomaly. While the lower classes are caricatured as they gossip and talk to the Inspector (some of their speech may be difficult for the non-English reader,) the upper classes are well-drawn. Gressingham, for example, is not the idiot he first appears to be, and Anne Saint-Cyres is a pleasant young woman who is caught between life as it used to be and a life of change. Some of the novel seems quaint and snobbish as when Anne describes Gressingham’s wife to her father:

She’s pretty frightful, daddy–from our point of view. What you’d call a hundred per cent Jezebel. She wears wine-coloured slacks and a fur coat.

Fire in the Thatch starts very well indeed, and I thought the plot was taking a certain direction when Lorac pulled a smooth switcheroo and created something much darker, much more poignant. This is a novel about loss, change, the sustainability of society during wartime, and a vanishing world. Britain will be irrevocably changed when the war finally ends, and Gressingham and his friends want to be on the scene to make money. Gressingham sees the future for the “land-owing gentry.”

What you refuse to realise is that this country’s going to swing to the left, and the hell of a a long way too.

Of the Lorac novels I’ve read so far, Fire in the Thatch,  a novel about loss, change and moving forward into an altered world, is easily my favourite.

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Death of Anton: Alan Melville (1936)

“When the circus was here last year I was away, helping to bury my brother-in-law. It was the only thing I ever did for my brother-in-law that I didn’t immediately regret afterwards.” (Dodo to Minto)

Crime blended with humour can work well–and it can also be a tasteless disaster. Rest easy crime fans, Alan Melville’s Death of Anton from British Library Crime Classics is a delight.

Death of anton

As the cover indicates, this is a novel that focuses on a circus– Joseph Carey’s World-Famous Circus and Menagerie to be precise, which arrives in town for a number of performances. Also in town is Scotland Yard’s Detective Inspector Minto who is dealing with family problems (namely a younger sister with a penchant for trouble who insists on marrying a gormless vacuum cleaner salesman).

Detective Inspector Minto strikes up a conversation with a man in the hotel dining room, and the man, who is the circus clown Dodo, mentions, before he realizes that he’s confiding in a Scotland Yard police detective, that the circus is a hotbed of crime:

No, Mr Minto, if it’s crime you’re after. Carey’s is the place for it. Theft, immorality, blackmail-you’ll find all the pretties there.

This incident turns out to be significant when the circus lion tamer, Anton, is found dead in the lion cage. First appearances indicate that he was mauled to death, but in reality, he’s been murdered, and someone’s made a clumsy attempt to cover up the crime.

Minto becomes an instant fan of the circus, and when he’s also befriended by some of the circus workers, naturally he becomes embroiled in solving the crime. There’s no shortage of suspects. Scraping away the facade of the circus as some sort of ‘family,’ we see that there was some funny business between Anton and the womanizing owner, Joseph Carey who makes many enemies through his “amorous adventures.” Anton stirred the jealousy of a another circus performer, and there’s also Anton’s ex-partner, Miller, who was kicked out of the lion act. Before Anton’s murder, there’s a wonderful section which details Anton’s performance in the ring with the tigers, and the tension and very real threat of violence is well conveyed. Circus life may be non-traditional, but it’s also portrayed as slightly claustrophobic, distilled into a microcosm, full of rivalries and tensions. The married trapeze artists, Loretta and Lorimer are perfect examples of this; husband and wife squabble over her behaviour, and whereas an ‘ordinary couple’ might stew in silent rage, we see how trust is so important when you are swinging, passing from one trapeze bar to another, 100s of feet up in the air without a net below.  ‘Mistakes’ in timing are fatal, so trapeze performers need marital bliss or risk death.

The delight here comes in the humour, and we see the dynamics of the Minto family set within the construct of the crime. Early on in the novel, the murderer confesses to Detective Inspector Minto’s brother who is a priest. Father Minto won’t reveal the confessor and DS Minto wishes that his brother “had stuck to his original idea of becoming an engine driver.” 

I knew very early in this novel that I was going to love it. Here’s Minto questioning Mr. Carey

“What did you find?” asked Mr. Carey. He seemed a little worried about this.

“Never mind. And stop asking me questions. It’s most disconcerting. I’ve lost the place now–where were we? Oh yes. Anton, for the third and last time, was killed during the party–probably between midnight and one-thirty. So that anyone who wasn’t at the party at that time is under suspicion. Clark Gable, for instance. The Emir of Transjordania, for example. Or the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. Or you… You left the party about half past twelve, didn’t you? You’d any amount of time to do it. Much more time than Mr. Gable or the Emir of Transjordania. In fact I think we can safely wipe them out. I’m not so sure about the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. He might have been addressing a meeting in the district, and nipped over and done it.”

I follow several other crime bloggers and they all reviewed this novel enthusiastically too, so I’d say if you are at all interested in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction or British Library Crime Classics, give this one a go.

Cross Examining Crime

The Invisible Event

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

(I thought Catholic priests were required to report crimes as serious as murder so I looked it up and apparently they aren’t. They keep quiet about child abuse, so why was I surprised.)

Finally for animal lovers, the tigers don’t fare well, and reading the book was a painful reminder about the lives of some of the animals (and an argument for the closing of all animal acts.)

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The Last Best Friend: George Sims (1967)

The Last Best Friend from British author George Sims is an entry in the British Library Classic Thriller series. Reading this novel came on the heels of reading another from the same author, The End of the Web.

The Last Best Friend concerns Ned Balfour, a married dealer in rare manuscripts and letters, who, when the novel begins, is cavorting with a girl half his age in Corsica.  He receives a telegram from his friend, concentration camp survivor Sam Weiss asking for his advice for a “terrible decision.” Slightly puzzled, Ned continues with his holiday until he gets a cable from his wife telling him that Sam committed suicide by jumping off the 10th floor of a building.

Ned immediately returns and he’s puzzled that his friend, who suffered from vertigo and was terrified of heights, chose this way to die. He’s drawn into the puzzle of Sam’s death and finds that all is not as it appears….

The Last Best Friend

As with The End of the Web, the great pleasure here is in the characterizations. Barbara Balfour’s friend, neglected wife, Ruth is chronically bored and isn’t above sleeping with the husband of her best friend. There’s also a thread which runs though the novel about the  purpose of life especially after survival. Flashbacks show that Sam Weiss is horrified by Ned’s chronic infidelity and admonishes him to curb his selfish ways. While Sam, who survived a concentration camp has definite ideas about a meaningful life, Ned’s ideas propel him in the opposite direction as he seeks pleasure wherever he can find it. To Sam, Ned is wasting his life.

Sammy had said with a sigh, “Yes. life is so short,” and then launched into a lecture on Balfour’s behaviour, telling him bluntly that he should not have left Barbara: “The children matter most. You don’t like your life with her, well you must lump it. Put up with it. Forget what you want for a bit and think about Toby and Prudence.”

This is a short novel which runs to just over 150 pages. On the down side, the story drags for about the first quarter as we get details of Ned’s almost-James-Bond-life. It’s interesting to compare The End of the Web with The Last Best Friend. The former concerns a chronically unfaithful antique dealer who dies in suspicious circumstances, and The Last Best Friend involves another mysterious death. The action in The End of the Web is driven by a single man who wants to settle down while in The Last Best Friend, a married man who’s unmoored from his domestic life is the unofficial investigator. So while these two mysteries involve mysterious deaths, they are both tied far more strongly by scenes of ruptured marriages and husbands who abandon their wives and families for younger pastures.

This short, very readable novel contains some nasty comments about homosexuals, and that dates the novel.

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The End of the Web: George Sims (1976)

The End of the Web from author George Sims (1923-1999) is an entry in the British Library Classic Thrillers series. This short novel has the feel of a  WWII spy thriller, but the plot takes us into the world of 1970s London antique dealers.

When married, philandering antique dealer Leo Selver is found dead of a heart attack next to the bludgeoned body of his latest conquest, Judy Latimer, the police assume it’s a crime of passion. But Leo’s wife, Beatrice isn’t convinced. She knows that Leo was chronically unfaithful, but refuses to believe that he was capable of murder. Instead she clings to the idea that an alternate scenario is possible: a jealous lover killed Judy.

The police dismiss Beatrice’s concerns in what seems to be an ugly, open-and-shut case, so she contacts former policeman, ex-race car driver Ed Buchanan, recently returned from Greece and currently unemployed.

The End of the Web

When Ed first hears the story of Leo’s death from Beatrice, he too isn’t convinced that there’s anything inconclusive about the case, but then again, there are a few niggling issues. Leo had recently become more involved with fellow antique dealer, Sydney Chard who seems to have vanished, and a third, overly anxious, dealer has phoned Beatrice a few times from Amsterdam.

Ed, with nothing more pressing to do, and with his eye on Leo’s young female assistant, takes the case.

While all of this is going on, we readers know that yes, Leo’s death was not as it seemed, and we also know Sydney’s fate. Of course, Ed is in the dark, but he soon realises that Leo was involved in something he could not control.

There’s very little down time in this book, and the plot never really goes into anything too fantastical. Underneath the plot, there’s the sense that life is ephemeral. Most of our characters have been struck with tragedy in some way: the Selvers lost their son, and Ed’s parents were killed in a senseless accident. When the novel begins, we have the very interesting Leo Selver chasing a young woman and wondering why he bothers when he’d so much prefer to be home with his wife.  The End of the Web is an entertaining tightly-written read that touches on bigger issues, without being preachy, such as the meaning we put to our lives and using our time wisely.  This depth, along with the idea that people are complex multi-layered beings, adds a nice touch to a book from the thriller genre.

Dichotomy: division or distribution into two parts; hence, a cutting into two; a division. He did contain two selves, dissimilar but complementary characters. There was the more obvious extrovert, call him Leo for short, a typical Sun subject, born in August, romantic, impulsive, greedy, vain, a man who made money quickly and lost it, philandered, played the fool, got into trouble. Then there was the subtler character, sober old Selver who had second thoughts, watched everything and everybody including Leo, made sly comments and criticized, saw the absurdity of Leo’s behaviour, tried to take evasive action whenever possible. 

(The novel includes Ed’s homo phobia which also apparently appears in another George Sims book: The Last Best Friend)

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Death of a Busybody: George Bellairs

“She was a perfect vessel of wrath.”

It’s a wonder that some people make it to old age, and in the case of village busybody, the highly unpleasant Miss Tither, who is 50, it’s a miracle she’s made it this far. When Death of a Busybody by George Bellairs (Harold Blundell 1902-1985) begins, the wonderfully named local vicar Rev. Ethelred Claplady has just woken up and is breathing in the fresh country air. On one side of the house the air is fragrant, but on the other side … there’s the stench of the cesspool being cleaned by the vicar’s handyman. Just then the vicar spies village busybody, Miss Tither haranguing Haxley, the local atheist in a country lane. While she’s the self-appointed moral guardian of the village of Hilary Magna, she’s mainly obsessed with “sexual” sin.

Miss Tither, “rather long in the tooth,” as the Squire described her, was about fifty years of age and had sufficient means to pay for domestic help which released her to poke her nose into the affairs of everyone for miles around. She was scorned and snubbed by most, but carried on her secret investigations and remedial campaigns against sin and vice with abhorrent fortitude. The village quailed in fear of her. Husbands, raising their hands or voices against their wives, paused at the thought of her. Scolding wives pitched their nagging in a lower key, lest Miss Tither should be in the offing. The lecherous, adulterous, drunken and blasphemous elements of the population held her in greater fear than the parson and looked carefully over their shoulders lest she be in their tracks.

Since the title of the book gives away the murder here, author George Bellairs wisely doesn’t waste time with much in the way of preliminaries. Within a few pages, Miss Tither is dead, bludgeoned and stuffed into the cesspool. The vicar sounds the alarm and word spreads through the village.

“Ethel Tither’s bin found strangled in the vicarage.” “Miss Tither’s bin found shot in vicar’s orchard.” “Owld Tither’s bin done-in. They say the vicar’s done it.” 

While Miss Tither had a great number of enemies, her behaviour has been consistent for years. Why is she murdered now? Is her death connected to the arrival of her missionary cousin? What are the latest juicy scandals brewing in the village?

death of a busybody

This is a well-paced tale, a police procedural which is made lively by the colourful personalities of some of the characters. It’s the small touches here, the best and worst of village life, that make this a humorous read, so the murder happens as the police are alerted about a lost Pomeranian. While I didn’t feel as though I got to know the series character, Chief Inspector Littlejohn well, I liked the detail of Littlejohn buying and then sending his wife two pounds of fudge. PC Harriwinckle’s domestic life, which is mainly seen around the table, adds to the tale.  As the investigation continues and dips into various lives, tertiary characters appear as wholly developed. Such is the case of former school teacher Miss Satchell, who now owns and operates a successful tea-room, and Mr Titmuss (who develops an interesting relationship with Sergeant Cromwell).

The book also includes prejudices of the day with the locals seen (and described) as smelly–so much so the coroner has an unpleasant time at the inquest. And there’s a scene of hunting which culminates in the local bobby bludgeoning a rabbit wounded by a huntsman who’s a notorious bad shot.

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Scarweather: Anthony Rolls (1934)

Scarweather is the first of two titles from Welsh author Anthony Rolls (real name C. E Vulliamy 1886-1971) in the British Library Crime Classics series, published in America by Poisoned Pen Press. The story concerns a mysterious disappearance and is unusual for its structure. The introduction from Martin Edwards gives a good overview of the career of Anthony Rolls, a prolific author whose career in crime fiction can be divided into two distinct parts.

Our narrator is a barrister, John Farringdale, and he tells a retrospective tale that began in 1913 and then unfolds over the next 15 years. We know immediately that this is a tale of criminal activity, remarkable for its “singularity of horror and [in] perversity of ingenious  method.” We also know that Farringdale’s great friend, Ellingham, takes the role of amateur sleuth, and it is Ellingham who “unravelled the mystery,” while Farringdale assumed the “traditional and honorable part of a Watson.”

Farringdale tells of his cousin, Eric Tallard Foster, a young man roughly the same age and of similar family circumstances. The difference between the two men can be found in Eric’s romantic nature and his readiness to fall in love. Eric’s hobby is archaeology and it’s through this that he meets Professor Tolgen Reisby, a notable expert in the field. Reisby’s attractive wife is 30 years younger.

scarweather

Foster spends a summer with the Reisbys at Scarweather, their remote coastal home and returns singing the praises of Mrs Reisby. Foster introduces Farringdale and Ellingham to Reisby, and soon all three men travel to Scarweather to enjoy the hospitality of the Reisbys.

Even before Farringdale meets Reisby,  Ellingham seems to have information, or an impression of Reisby. It’s easy to smell a mystery forming.

“And what have you heard?” I asked him.

Ellingham chose to ignore my question. He drew a golden toothpick from a case in his pocket and lightly tapped it along his lower teeth; it was an offensive habit which always annoyed me. though I knew it was the prelude to cogitation.

“I may have met him, or I may have seen him,” he said. “I’m not quite sure.”

Foster admires Professor Reisby, but the reality is far different. He’s a rather unpleasant fellow. Farringdale says Reisby’s face is “like that of a benevolent Jupiter,” and yet he also senses that Reisby is “a man whose retaliation would be cruel and unscrupulous.”

Arriving at Scarweather, Farringdale soon feels “the shadow of a quite intangible menace, the dim foreboding of something not yet recognised on the conscious plane,” but after a fortnight at Scarweather, the holiday ends. Later, in 1914, Foster visits Scarweather again and goes missing while swimming. Ellingham is immediately suspicious, and the discovery of a bizarre letter in Foster’s coat serves to fuel the theory of foul play. The police, however, are satisfied and refuse to conduct “further investigation.”

WWI intervenes. Farringdale and Ellingham survive. Other people around Scarweather disappear….

Scarweather is unusual for its structure, but it is overly long. Ellingham’s manner of holding information close is frustrating and something I find annoying when it comes to crime books. The author’s interest and expertise in archaeology comes into play here, and while it adds authenticity to the book, it also bogs the plot down with detail. I liked the structure of a mystery taking place years earlier. Foster disappears but global events intervene, so we see the lives of Farringdale and Ellingham continue while Foster’s life freezes in time. The friends of Foster never forget him–murder never goes away, and the author shows that well even if the route to that conclusion is overly long.

Kate from Crossexaminingcrime also reviewed the novel. 

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The Sussex Downs Murder: John Bude (1936)

The usual assault by a homicidal maniac.” 

Since I already own a few of the British Library Crime Classics titles, I was delighted to hear that Poisoned Pen Press is publishing this vintage series here in America. Vintage crime titles are great fun–after all there’s very little in the way of forensics, and you can forget high-tech crime lab stuff, and that just leaves us with plot and character.

John Bude, whose real name was Ernest Elmore (1901-1957) belongs to the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Inspector Meredith appears in many of his crime novels, and he’s here in The Sussex Downs Murder, from 1936, quite a lurid story for its times–although it’s handled with a de-emphasis on the lurid, and stresses more village life and various local personalities. The murder concerns John Rothers, one of two brothers who jointly own a farmhouse, Chalklands, considerable farm land and also lime-kilns based near the farmhouse. Now if your ears pricked up, as mine did, at the mention of lime, well you’re onto the scent already.

The Sussex Downs MurderThe Rothers were once much more affluent and titled, but they’ve come down in the world, and with the “shrinkage of a considerable family fortune,” a “certain antagonism” existed between the two remaining descendants: John and William Rother. Perhaps it’s because they’re so different, or perhaps it’s because they must share their inheritance. Or perhaps it’s something to do with Janet Waring who married William while it’s rumoured that she preferred John….

So there’s our recipe for murder, and so the story commences.

John drives away from Chalklands for a holiday in Harlech, but his bloodstained car is later found abandoned, and Inspector Meredith is called in to investigate.

Bude sets the scene for this tale of murder against the “little parish of Washington“:

It is a typical village of two streets, two pubs, a couple of chandlers, a forge, an Olde Tea Shoppe, and a bus service. Although the parish is bisected by the main Worthing-Horsham road, it has managed to retain in the face of progress all those local peculiarities which have their roots in the old feudal system of government. There is still a genuine squire at the Manor House to whom the group of idlers outside the “Chancton Arms”, whatever their politics, instinctively touch their hats; whilst the well-being of the church rests in the conservative hands of the Reverend Gorringe, as typical a parson as ever trod the pages of Trollope.

Bude very carefully maintains this image of the tranquility and quirkiness of village life throughout Inspector Meredith’s investigations, so that the gruesome tale of murder is seen as a pathological, atypical incident. One harmless villager chases butterflies and eats at the vegetarian guest-house, The Lilac Rabbit. The constable has to bicycle around with news as very few people have a telephone in their homes, and servants who see everything but say little play a considerable role.

Even though the modern reader will be well aware that crime detection in the 30s was an entirely different matter from today’s CSI, nonetheless it still shocks the sensibilities to read about people casually picking up bones or shoes and there’s never a whisper about preserving the integrity of the crime scene. The crime solution comes down to Inspector Meredith’s wits, and John’s disappearance is initially thought to be, perhaps, a kidnapping, “an unfortunate criminal habit which has been imported” from America. This reflects the attitudes of the times and the fear that the gangster-ridden streets of America might become a fixture in Britain too.

While I guessed the solution very early in the novel, accompanying Meredith through his investigations was great fun. My favourite sections were the scenes between Inspector Meredith and local crime writer, Aldous Barnet, who is also a close friend of William Rother. Barnet makes an enthusiastic audience for Meredith, and there’s plenty of tongue-in-cheek jabs about the profession of writing about crimes with Mr Barnet deciding that he “could work this case up into a novel.” Barnet and Chief Constable Major Forest act as sounding boards for Meredith’s various, sometimes elaborate and lengthy theories about the crime throughout various phases of detection. Meredith is an interesting, albeit low-key character–a family man who hates to miss his high-tea and discusses his cases with his family. While many aspects of the story are quaint (at one point, Meredith ask who cleans Janet’s shoes), and while crime detection is so low-gadget, one wonders how any crimes were solved, it’s clear that human nature remains the same throughout the centuries:

You see, Mr Barnet, crime is bound up with human weakness, human greed, human misery–at every turn in an investigation you come up against the human element.

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Big Girls Don’t Cry by Fay Weldon

“Well, we’re sorry. Every generation must apologise to the future, and the greater the change that was brought about, the profounder the apology needs to be. … Let the feminists apologise for the death of love, lost children, and the diminishing of man. But what was a girl to do? Someone has to reform the world. You can’t see what you see and do nothing.”

The works of British author Fay Weldon concentrate on the lives of women with themes that include: female identity & self-image, revenge, transformation & reinvention, gender inequality, female madness and the vicious relationships between women. While Weldon’s work, full of dark, bitingly wicked humour, obviously fits in any feminist canon, her work can also be considered Transgressive fiction for the way her marvelous characters subvert societal norms. Case in point: Big Girls Don’t Cry–a story of a band of women who form a feminist publishing house. I can’t think of another author who would take this subject to show how the treacherous relationships between women undermine the lives of these characters, and while this is not my favourite Weldon novel, it’s deceptively brilliant, and ultimately an incredible commentary on shifting social times.

The world envied them, derided them, adored, loathed and pitied them by turns–these women who were larger than life. Layla, Stephanie, Alice, Nancy and company–a small, vivid group of wild livers, free-thinkers, lusters after life, sex and experience, who in the last decades of the century turned the world inside out and upside down. Unable to change themselves, they turned their attention to society, and set about changing that, for good or bad.

Weldon tells us that the women were “described” as feminists, “but they were never quite in step; too far in front to notice what the rest were doing.” The novel begins in 1971 and follows our characters for several decades in an ever-changing Britain. It’s London, and there’s change in the air, and here are two young women in their twenties: Stephanie and Layla pasting up posters with a feminist message:

A Woman Needs a Man like a Fish Needs a Bicycle.

Stephanie and Layla (carrying a plank under her arm) are about to move on. Stopping to stare at the poster are Kiwi tourists, Nancy and her fascist controlling fiancé, Brian. Brian is expressing contempt for newspaper headlines while the newspaper vendor, a man with a nose eaten by leprosy, looks on. For a moment, Layla, Stephanie, Nancy and Brian face each other on the pavement:

“Could we pass?” asks Layla, politely since Brian and his unbought newspaper bar their way. The noseless man smiles thinly under hideous nostrils.

“Ladies say please,” says Brian.

At which Layla simply turns and swipes him to one side with the end of the plank, turns back, and she and Stephanie move on. Brian knocked against the wall momentarily, recovers quickly.

“Aggressive bitches,” he says.

“You were in their way, Brian,” remarks Nancy, which makes Brian wonder exactly whose side she’s on.

“They must be feminists,” he observes.

“How can you be sure?” she asks.

“They don’t even walk like proper women,” he says.

And it’s true. All around Brian and Nancy doe-eyed and adoring women drift along in the shadows of men, stumbling on platforms, trit-trotting on stiletto heels. Layla and Stephanie stride; they wear jeans and t-shirts. Their equivalents today would be muscular and well-exercised. Layla and Stephanie, for all their health, strength and energy, are soft-limbed, smooth-shouldered. Men have muscles: women have defencelessness as their weapon. No wonder this world is so erotic, super-charged: composed of polarities as it is. He, she. Hard, soft. Ying, yang.

Nancy ‘gets’ the poster’s message, while Brian is genuinely puzzled by what feminists “want.”

big girls don't cryAfter this scene, which turns out to be most significant, the book moves on to a “consciousness-raising” meeting at Stephanie’s house in Chalcot Crescent. The meeting  of “five furies in the front room” ends with alliances forged, inter-female betrayal, a marital relationship in the toilet, major rivalries between female characters erupting, and the formation of a feminist press: Medusa. The rest of the book follows the lives, loves and careers of its characters: Stephanie (who later abandons Medusa and joins Menstra magazine), Layla who sleeps with ‘the enemy,’  the very domestic Daffy, “High Priestess,” Alice, poor tragic Zoe destroyed by her passivity, and Zoe’s daughter Saffron, as they move through the decades, shifts in the feminist movement, broken relationships, and the onslaught of AIDS. As the decades pass, our radicals of the 70s discover that they’ve become passé, and sadly, but perhaps appropriately, it’s Zoe, the one who pays the greatest price, who makes the biggest impact, and it’s Saffron who delivers delicious revenge.

Fay Weldon doesn’t shy away from interjecting her thoughts in these pages while presenting a unique perspective on the feminist movement. Her characters, although vivid and alive are more types than intimate character studies, but it’s through these women, these characters who fought against tradition, we see a range of results and prices paid: guilt, regret, loneliness and even a lack of appreciation as the feminist movement marches on and leaves most of our characters in the dust. Weldon’s frequent interjections and social commentary may annoy some readers (not me obviously). Weldon’s pithy, lively social commentary would do wonders in any classroom:

Children then were grateful to have been born at all; were on the whole uncritical of their upbringing; parents did the best they could in the light of their own natures, it was commonly assumed

and

That was in the mid-seventies: socialist days. Long ago. The notion of primal ownership has returned with a vengeance: and the profit therein. The rain that falls from heaven belongs not to god but to the Water Board, the forests nature grew are fenced off and belong to the Forestry Commission; your very corpse belongs to the state: its parts up for sale for research purposes. Money has won over human dithering. The natural mother owns the genes of the child she forgot and can claim that child back from the adoptive mother any time: the moral right of the one who toils is swept away in the tide of mine, mine: the country you claim is the one of your ancestors not the one which reared you.

Saffron, the next generation, is the child of the 70s: the product of a woman who wanted to be a feminist and Bullivant, a man terrified that he’d become superfluous in a world in which he couldn’t dominate and bully. Here’s Saffron visiting a bookshop in which she’s served by a woman in combat fatigues:

Saffron leaves her companions and walks briskly down to Compendium Books, the radical bookshop near Camden Town, instead of up the hill and home to her house in the cramped narrow streets behind Belsize Park. She loves looking in the window, to the display therein of global hopes and fears. Books on the Nuclear Threat, CND, Marx, Trotsky, Anarchism, The Buddhist Path to Serenity. There’s a large section labeled Wimmin–the three letters M-A-N in that order seeming to some an insult. Books on the nature of the patriarchy, the particular plight of black women, the male tendency to rape and pillage–though scarcely a one, yet, on incest or child sexual abuse–and a large section given over to Medusa books, which are noticeably glossier and more attractively designed than the rest.

In spite of the book’s light, humorous tone, Weldon asks some serious, difficult questions here while examining the feminist movement in the last few decades of the 20th century.  Through these vibrant characters, the story addresses the price paid by the women who ignored convention and fought for alternative lives, and then lived to see the movement become fragmented and morph into something new and different. In another author’s hands, especially in these PC days, I can’t help but think that this story would be one of stellar sisterhood, one of those nasty uplifting novels. Ultimately Weldon’s message here seems to be that women need to watch each other’s backs and that women, by their physiology alone, will juggle careers, relationships and children and, along the way, make some tough choices that will be layered with guilt and regret.

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Filed under Fiction, Weldon, Fay