This was a new author to me when I came across this book earlier this year. I think fellow writer and friend of Greenwood, Arthur Machem, sums up the book well when he wrote that it ‘is compounded on the true and ancient recipe, it mixes mirth and murder with immense spirit and success.’ This was Greenwood’s first novel and he would go on to write five more, before his untimely death in 1939. During his lifetime he worked in many roles, director, actor and even as a screen writer for Hitchcock. I sometimes wonder why books have their name changed for US publication, but I think this is definitely one of those exceptions where the name change is quite an improvement, as originally in the UK this book was published under the bizarre name, Skin and Bone. Fortunately this forgotten book was reprinted by Valancourt Books a couple of years ago, making it much easier to track down than Greenwood’s other books. At the time of its reprinting this book was reviewed by Michael Dirda for the Washington Post, which you can read here. (After reading my post first of course!)
Today’s read is an inverted mystery. In a nutshell, the dowager, Lady Arabella de Birkett, has big plans to restore the family funds, which have been significantly depleted in the last couple of centuries. She plans to do this by insuring her family members, who have to agree to the pay-out going to her grandson, Henry. Arabella hopes that this will provide sufficient money for Henry to be set up properly as a peer of the realm, whether he wants to be or not. In the main most agree and after some brow beating, the elderly brother in law, Alfred, is pushed into making a new will leaving his existing policy to Henry. Of course even the newest of mystery fans will be suspicious of this plan and when Alfred dies soon afterwards, this suspicion is quickly substantiated. With a great deal of creative flair further family members die, leaving the remaining family relations decidedly unnerved. Will she be stopped? How can she be stopped? In and amongst this Henry is also battling for the right to marry the woman he loves, over Arabella’s chosen marital candidate. Whilst this book has a fair dose of dark humour in book, it also has a very high chill factor.
Looking back over the book I would say that the book is more macabre and spine chilling action than out and out comedy, like the work of Alice Tilton for instance, though the ending is wonderfully ironic. It has been a while since I have read a mystery where the acts of murder are so bloodless or non-graphic, yet are so chilling and shiver-inducing at the same time, reminding me a little of Christie’s Five Little Pigs (1942) in terms of atmosphere. The first death is particularly memorable in this respect. So yeah Arabella takes villainy to a whole new level. Her relations by blood and marriage, are by no means all wonderful or even nice people, but her despotism towards them and her companion become worse and worse as the book progresses, making someone like Shakespeare’s Iago look mild and half-hearted when it comes to murder and getting your own way.
In some ways the tension of the book rests between those who hark for earlier times and values, with those who do not, with some characters such as dowager being a mixture of both, depending on what she wants. This family presents 1930s society as a transitional one. Even some of the younger characters do not fit in well with the more modern attitudes towards relationships, though perhaps them not keeping up with them is not such a bad thing, in comparison to characters who definitely are “modern,” such as the lascivious Lily, who ‘even at Deauville […] had attained a certain notoriety by the complete shamelessness of her beach pyjamas.’ Henry and Dora, can be a little nauseating at times, but thankfully the narrative switches around to different characters so you don’t have too much of this to put up with in one go. The writing style whether macabre or humorous is a delight and one character description that still sticks in my head is for the quite senile Reverend Alfred, who is said to potter around most of the time; ‘pottered from the church to the rectory and pottered about the village, whose inhabitants grew to look upon him rather as they looked upon any other act of God.’ I can imagine him being quite a colourful local minister to have!
There are quite a few copies of the reprint available online at varying prices, though good luck trying to track down any of Greenwood’s other books cheaply or at all: Miracle in the Drawing Room (1935), Pins and Needles, A Melodrama (1935), French Farce, A Tale of Gallic Lunacy, Murder and Mirth (1937), Old Goat (1937), Dark Understudy, A Modern Crime Story (1940), the latter of course published posthumously. There was a reasonably priced copy of French Farce, but yeah it’s not there anymore! Sorry folks! But I do recommend you get The Deadly Dowager.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Matriarch of the family