June Wright, is the second Australian crime writer I’ve read and I was not disappointed. Murder in the Telephone Exchange (1948) is set in Melbourne and uses the author’s own experiences of working in a telephone exchange, though she denies the idea that the amateur sleuth of the book, Maggie Byrnes is based on herself.
The setting consequently feels vibrant and realistic without being overladen with too much background information. She entered this novel into an international literary competition, which was judged by Anthony Berekley Cox, John Creasey, Dennis Wheatley and Gregory Sallust. No one won the full prize money of £1000, but Wright like some of the other contestants did receive a smaller amount and the opportunity to have their novel published. During her writing career she was also a busy homemaker, only having time to write in the evening and in the introduction to my copy it is suggested that her writing helped her to cope with the dullness of domestic life and gave her room to release pent up frustration:
‘After a particularly exasperating day, it is a relief to murder a few characters in your book instead!’
It is a pity that her writing career was curtailed by her husband’s long term illness which led to her taking up regular full time employment. Aside from creating Maggie Byrnes, Wright also created another amateur detective who was a nun called Mother Paul and I would be intrigued to read these novels as well.
The novel is written retrospectively by our amateur detective Maggie Byrnes, who appears to be writing an account of the crimes which occur at her workplace for therapeutic reasons:
‘This is John’s idea, not mine. It will bear my reluctant signature and is a record of my impressions of the various incidents which occurred during the heat-wave of last February, but the inspiration is John’s. I think his suggestion sprang from the desire to give me something to do besides count the days for my stay in this shameful place to end.’
Where Maggie is writing her tale becomes almost a secondary mystery to solve and is intricately linked with the primary mystery of murder. The victim is a monitor called Sarah Compton, who’s prying and manipulative ways make her an attractive target for murder. She is found by Maggie and her close friend Mac late at night after an evening shift, but this incident is one of the many events which have altered the atmosphere at the telephone exchange. It seems someone has been snooping inside people’s lockers, Mr Scott the supervisor has suddenly become worried and withdrawn and someone on the night of the murder locked the staff restroom, a room which mysteriously appears unlocked and where Compton’s body is then found. Unsurprisingly Compton received a lot of anonymous notes, including one on the evening of her death warning her to not interfere. But it is two letters from 1917 which pique the police’s interest (the novel being set contemporaneously with the publication year).
Inspector Coleman and Sergeant Matheson are the policemen working on the case, which is not made easy for them by the fact that everyone hides information from them. Both Maggie’s friend Mac and another co-worker Gloria hold back information concerning their last sightings of Compton and Maggie herself, who receives confidences from many of the characters does not reveal them until very late in the novel. Trying to convince her to do otherwise is Sergeant Matheson, a keen basketball player, who seems to also take a more personal interest in her. Moreover, Maggie decides to solve the mystery for herself, aided by another colleague, John Clark, who is also a potential romantic interest for Maggie. Yet Maggie’s dabble into detection does not go without consequences as further deaths follow, bringing the case even closer to home and even her own life becomes increasingly endangered. Such a threat hanging over her does not deter Maggie from her sleuthing, especially with their being so many unanswered questions. Why won’t Mac tell Maggie what’s troubling her? How did Gloria know where Compton was killed before the newspapers mentioned it? Maggie is at times ruthless in her pursuit of the truth, comfortably giving exasperating co-workers the third degree to obtain information:
‘Her wide blue eyes were like those of a bird fascinated by a snake, which simile though apt, I considered as very derogatory to myself. I had made up my mind to be without mercy until I had got what I wanted.’
But, with a killer who is keen to silence anyone who stands in their way, it will remain to be seen whether curiosity finally kills the cat, or in this case Maggie…
Wright has a talent for describing people, relationships and locations and I think Wright’s claim in the introduction, that this novel was indebted to Sayers’ style, (Gaudy Night (1935) being her favourite novel at the time) does hold some weight. This is not a fast paced novel, though it does have a dramatic ending which definitely grips you. But equally when reading this novel it does not feel slow or dragging (though there are places which could have been shortened a little). It is the sort of novel which has its own specific rhythm, which you become accustomed to as you delve further into the story, getting to know the characters really well whilst also trying to solve a mystery. I think my favourite character pertains to Maggie’s landlady who is portrayed as Dickensian and as a mastiff, which is quite a combination. I enjoyed how the novel looked at how the murder case affects individuals, how it takes its toll on people and leaves others as people Maggie feels she can no longer look up to:
‘Everything and everyone are out of perspective to me.’
This is a case which makes and breaks important relationships for Maggie, ensuring things will never be the same again. Moreover, what makes this such a strong novel is that Wright pulls a trick on the reader which I think Agatha Christie would have been proud of and makes for a really good ending.