Spine Chilling Victim and a Loveable Comic Sleuth in Joan Coggin’s Penelope Passes or Why Did She Die? (1946)

Joan Coggin is one of the Golden Age’s overlooked and mostly forgotten authors. She may not have been a prolific author, only writing 4 crime fiction novels, the other three being Who Killed the Curate? (1944), The Mystery of Orchard House (1946), and Dancing with Death (1947), but she did give fiction a brilliant, if erratic amateur detective called Lady Lupin, who just so happens to be a vicar’s wife. Coggin’s novels are by and large comic ones, starting with the sleuth herself, who is anything but your typical vicar’s wife, being much more comfortable at a cocktail party than a Mother’s Union meeting. In the first two novels in particular, Lady Lupin’s detecting style heavily involves her misunderstanding other people (such as assuming that someone in the Mother’s Union thinks she pregnant, because she was asked to get involved) or mixing up anecdotes, muddling the whos, whats, whens and whys all at the same time. This still occurs in Why Did She Die? (Rue Morgue Press offer Penelope Passes as an alternative title, believing if Coggin spent more time on the novel she would have chosen it, as it links to a poem which features in the novel). However, what I found interesting to see was that in this novel, Lady Lupin has really matured, having aged 10 years from being a young 20 something old in the first novel to being in her 30s now. She is not so scatter brained and provides a great deal of emotional support to the other characters.

Penelope Passes

This novel takes place over a year, a short while after the end of WW2 and begins very light heartedly and comically with Penelope Stevenson, her brother Dick and her pregnant sister in law, Betty worrying about the guests they have coming, Lady Lupin and her husband, Andrew Hastings. Many jokes are had about the guests, with the usual stereotypes clouding their perceptions of them. However, this is soon debunked by the young and vivacious Lady Lupin, who quickly warms to Betty and Dick. Bob Deering also features in the gathering and is one of romantic interests for Penelope. Penelope though, who is nearing 40, has written off romance in her life, having devoted herself to being a do-gooder and looking after her aging father and her brother, a role she has had since she was young when her mother died. This role as carer seemingly also led to a sad love affair 20 years ago where she broke off an engagement to Colonel Charles Graeme, as the Colonel was being stationed in India and would have taken her away from her father. Penelope remains a rather maudlin martyr, which prevents Lady Lupin and the readers alike from feeling any sympathy for her.

The tense undercurrents continue when Dick and co. visit Lady Lupin and Andrew, with Dick being overly attentive to Penelope in comparison to his pregnant wife, which causes a difficult atmosphere, with Penelope being unaware of the tension her over-involvement in Dick’s life has. This becomes even worse when Betty gives birth and a desire for her own home and control over her own baby assert themselves strongly. The seemingly idyllic country village, country house and family begins to crumble further as the weird power and role Penelope has is revealed. For example, Betty may have just given birth, but the congratulations from well-meaning villagers (including from the admiration struck local vicar Mr Baker) goes to Penelope, a woman who slept through the entire event. She is a fascinating character in the novel, whose initial helpful and unselfishness starts to peel away, with both Lady Lupin and Andrew beginning to see a much darker side to her:

‘I was thinking that she sees herself as a different person from the one she really is, and one day she will find herself out.’

If the Stevenson household was a volcano the events of the previous months have turned it from a dormant to a rapidly active one. The return of Colonel Graeme gives characters such as Betty the hope that Penelope will finally get her happily ever after, with Betty and Dick moving in with Mr Stevenson (Penelope and Dick’s father) to relieve Penelope of the burden of caring for him. Yet this being a crime fiction novel and since Penelope’s whole life is like a self-made tragedy, this is not to be with Lady Lupin correctly identifying that Penelope’s apparent unselfishness has become a vice, as she refuses to marry the Colonel, saying she could never leave her father. Betty though is more anxious that Penelope is trying to live vicariously through her. However, it is the death of Mr Stevenson which brings these difficult emotions to an explosive head. Not only do the days leading up to the funeral reveal a cold, theatrical and heartless side to Penelope but it also leads to a terrifying realisation on Dick and Betty’s part. Their hopes that Penelope will now finally leave and marry Charles are dashed as Penelope declares her intentions to remain with them forever. All of which causes an immense strain on Dick and Betty’s marriage, with Betty temporarily leaving Dick.

It is therefore not a surprise when Penelope is found shot in the garden by Dick and Betty. But was it suicide or murder? In life Penelope caused a lot of grief and pain, despite being viewed by the general populace as saintly and the epitome of the unselfish woman, which the investigations by the police, Lady Lupin and her private detective friend Mr Borden expose. But in death she also causes further trouble as guilt ridden, defensive and unreconciled, Dick and Betty do not present a picture of innocence. Additionally Penelope’s death creates a vacuum, with many characters acting out of character at her funeral, apart from the annoying distant relatives (which are comic genius on Coggin’s part). With a pile of possible motives, multiple people confessing to murdering Penelope and the suspiciously absent Colonel being nowhere to be found, despite the fact he went for a walk with Penelope on the fatal day, this is a mystery which will keep you guessing until the very end.

Lady Lupin, although not always the most directive of sleuths, is a character I really love and in a way is like a younger Miss Marple, due to her natural role as a confidante. Through this role, Lady Lupin derives most of her information and ideas, even if she is then unable to express them in a logical or succinct way:

‘Lady Lupin is not a clear thinker … but there is not much that escapes her.’

It is hard not to like Lady Lupin really, as her desire to be a good vicar’s wife often internally clashes with her own natural instincts and this is humorously conveyed in the story:

‘I am glad your husband is with him.’

Lupin was not sure that she was so glad. If Dick really had turned into a homicidal maniac she would have preferred him to choose someone else’s husband as his walking partner but she thought it might sound selfish to say so, so she sank down into a chair and lit a cigarette in silence’.

Moreover, like Miss Marple, criminal activity seems to be attracted to her like a magnet, which she comically despairs of:

‘I could think of a lot of reasons… but one does not often murder people in real life.’ ‘They do if I am anywhere about… I don’t know why it is, exactly, but there must be something queer about me, like those people in Greek tragedies, you know. The minute I appear upon the scene everyone cries, ‘Let’s have a murder!’

Lady Lupin has a mixed attitude towards crime and punishment, often feeling sympathy for her hypothetical criminals, considering the emotional torment they must have gone through to get to that point where they commit the crime. In this case her dislike of Penelope means she is even more sympathetic and when she theorises that the servant Alice may have done the deed, she immediately begins to plan how she could help her escape to America. However, on the other hand, Lady Lupin also sees the importance of identifying the criminal as a means of helping the suspected innocent:

‘She wished that she were not always getting mixed up in criminal affairs. She always felt so sorry for everyone concerned and she hated the idea of giving anyone away. Still, one could not afford these feelings in the case of murder. One had to find out who really was the criminal, otherwise suspicion hung about innocent people.’

A key strength of the characterisation in this novel is the way that very few of the characters are what they seem. The angelic Penelope, becomes positively Machiavellian by the end of the novel and the apparently tactless and hopelessly devoted wife, Mrs Baker, proves to be shrewd judge of character and a hard worker who has borne many troubles. Even the initial image of Mr Stevenson as the typical tyrannical father of fiction begins to become worn around the edges and questionable. Furthermore, I also liked the links to Jane Austen and her works, as Lady Lupin likens Colonel Graeme to Mr Knightley (the hero of Austen’s novel Emma (1815)), when another character suggests that when the Colonel and Penelope were engaged 20 years ago, it was Penelope’s intentions to get him to buy out of the army and settle in to her father’s house, though I think Coggin provides a twist on the Mr Woodhouse figure, Mr Stevenson is arguably supposed to initially represent. Furthermore, there are ties to Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811) with one character being called Mrs Dashwood and Colonel Graeme arguably aligning himself with the earnestly devoted and patient lover we find in Colonel Brandon.

The character of Penelope also needs to be considered, as she is one of the reasons why this is such a strong novel, where the actual victim is shown to be a frightening figure of malevolence, which is cloaked by a facade of politeness and unselfishness that provides her with a great deal of control and power. The lines between villain and victim are quite blurred with Penelope and the way her horrid nature is revealed, layer by layer as the book progresses has at times a spine chilling effect as you see the other characters suddenly realising what they are up against.

Rating: 4/5 (This is the sort of series you can dip in to at any point, although I feel that readers who start with the first two novels will find a different Lady Lupin, to the one which can be found emerging in this novel. Regardless of how mature or muddleheaded Lady Lupin is or isn’t, she is a brilliant and loveable character)

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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7 Responses to Spine Chilling Victim and a Loveable Comic Sleuth in Joan Coggin’s Penelope Passes or Why Did She Die? (1946)

  1. JJ says:

    This central idea of reversing the perception of the seemingly-blameless victom reminds me of Agatha Christie’s Ordeal by Innocence (there’s always a Christie parallel, isn’t there?). It’s a conceit that can be difficult to pull off well – if someone was that ghastly, how come no-one noticed or did anything about it? – but when done well, as it sounds like it is here, it can be very effective. Coggin is another Rue Morgue author I really must get around to, along with Juanita Sheridan and Delano Ames and Stuart Palmer and Eilis Dillion and…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah it is hard to avoid Christie parallels. Well in the case of this victim a few people have reservations about the character, but for their own reasons don’t stand up to Penelope and as for others, strong emotional attachment or infrequent visiting help to maintain Penelope’s saintly illusion.

      Like

  2. Bev Hankins says:

    I have enjoyed the Joan Coggin books that I’ve read so far. I haven’t had a chance to read this one yet–but it’s on the stack.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Book of the Month: October 2015 | crossexaminingcrime

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  5. Pingback: A Brilliant Series Finish in Joan Coggin’s Dancing with Death (1947) | crossexaminingcrime

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