‘One day I shall commit a murder in this place.’
Source: Review Copy
Harriet Rutland (a pseudonym for Olive Shimwell) is another Golden Age writer which has been rescued from obscurity by Curtis Evans, who provides interesting insights into her life in the introduction to this novel, including the idea that the hydro spa setting of the novel is based/influenced by Rutland’s own stay at a hydropathic establishment at St Ann’s Hill in Ireland, though the novel is set in Devon.
The style of Rutland’s novel is quite a change from the Annie Haynes’ novels I have been reading recently, providing a much more satirical and at times cutting depiction of humanity. This is foreshadowed in the quote at the beginning of the novel which is from Dickens’ The Pickwick Paper (1836), which emphasises the joy older people get out of gossiping and talking scandal, which is a theme at the heart of the killings which take place. I liked the way Rutland introduced the various inhabitants at Presteignton Hydro, an establishment which normally caters to elderly middleclass genteel personages. The characters are introduced through their observations on Mrs Napier, a woman who deliberately falls over to get attention. Admiral Urwin laughs at her and calls her a ‘hag,’ Miss Brendon, partially blind and bed ridden is desperate to be kept informed by her assistant Ada Rogers, Lady Warme (in true Downton style) is not amused, Mrs Dawson sees her as material for her new book, young Miss Blake, quite an oddity herself in such a hotel, worries about getting older, Sir Humphrey Chervil (another oddity) is too interested in Blake’s swimming costume to comment, Winnie and Millie Marston laugh, Mrs Marston questions Napier’s sanity, Mr Marston wishes he wasn’t there, Doctor Williams becomes infuriated and Colonel Simcox just snorts. It is down to the vexed Nurse Hawkins and Miss Astill to actually pick her up.
As you can see the cast of characters is rather large, which does become a bit of an issue later on trying to remember them all, though overall they are not presented at their best and it is unsurprising when Miss Lewis, Dr. Williams’ secretary (yet another character) refers to the residents as Wendy’s children from Peter Pan. Due to the number only a few get closer attention such as Mrs Napier, who interestingly at the start of the novel, is allowed a brief window of sympathy as her thoughts suggest a very unhappy woman. Though the histrionics she pulls do make you wonder whether she will be the first murder victim. Answer: No, clearly trying too hard for that position.
Being the two oddities in the place, Humphrey and Blake become firm favourites with the opposite sex and are the main focus of all the gossip, with a suggestion there is romance between them. A piece of imagery I particularly enjoyed was when Blake was likened to ‘Tenniel’s illustration of Alice between the two Queens,’ and in a way I thought it foreshadowed events to come. Blake’s choice of clothes and literature come under censure, though this does not stop her being pleasant of sorts and even volunteering to save the day when the pianist for the evening’s concert has to cancel. But tragedy occurs when next morning Blake is found dead with a knitting needle through the back of her head, a choice of weapon inconvenient to Inspector Palk as everyone in the place seems to have them.
The world Rutland creates is a much harsher and colder one as during the initial investigation many of the guests along with all the servants begin to accuse one another for no reason at all apart from spite. Though this chain of accusation is helpful to Palk in deciding which person to interview next. An amusing incident during this part of the story is when the Colonel is asked about his knitting, causing him to bluster:
‘And why the devil shouldn’t men knit if they want to? Women are a damned sight too keen on doing our jobs… Why shouldn’t we do their jobs for a change?’
Blake’s lack of a past also adds to the mystery, along with a lighter which is found at the scene of the crime. Mrs Dawson herself comes under suspicion when her notes for her latest crime novel seem to eerily match the actual murder:
‘Well, there were to have been several murders in the book. Two or three, at least. The reading public nowadays is never satisfied with only one murder. They like plenty of thrills for their money.’
An idea which Palk is derogatory of, along with women authors and quite possibly women in general, like Haynes’ Inspector Stoddart:
‘Inspector Palk snorted. That’s just typical of a woman, he thought, in the superiority of his bachelorhood. Vultures, all of ’em!’
Though it seems Rutland has the last laugh in this. Aside from Mrs Dawson, it initially seems several people could have done it, such as those characters with sufficient anatomical knowledge, but another clue seems to point so strongly towards one particular character, Palk feels no compunction in arresting them.
Life seems to resume normality at the hydro, this time focusing in on the Marston family and their thoughts which reveal an array of fears, queries and foibles along with the rumours the other old ladies are spreading about Winnie. Normality is brought to an end though when another murder happens, a death which throws all of Palk’s neat theories out of the window, with the suspicious behaviour of many characters, some old some new, throwing the field of suspects wide open. The emotional drama which unfolds is very realistic, though the disagreeable natures of some of the characters prevents proper pathos and sympathy. For Palk the main question is whether the same killer did both murders, or whether this second killing is an ‘imitative’ one? Again the residents are unhelpful in their answers to Palk, though with Mrs Dawson he does rather set himself up for it:
‘If your detective had arrested Sir Humphrey Chervil… whom would you have made responsible for the second murder?’
‘My detective would never have been such a fool!’
The case comes to a standstill until a mysterious guest arrives called Mr Winkley, a man who talks like a gentleman and is a fan of detection and detective stories. Quickly a firm favourite with the other residents, he is jokingly referred to Dr. Thorndyke and Holmes as he seemingly goes about doing some amateur sleuthing. But who is he really? Just an ordinary man with a hobby in detection? A disguised policeman? A journalist? Or something else entirely?
I think Rutland is successful at depicting the change in atmosphere after the second death and her description that the residents ‘all seemed like so many Ancient Mariners, cursed to tell their tales to ease their minds,’ is rather apt. However, regardless of who Winkley may or may not be, will either he or Palk be able to ever solve the murders? Or will it take another death to show the truth? Along the way a number of surprising twists on some of the characters are revealed, suggesting not everyone is who they seem.
I’m sure the final show down (which is referenced in the title) has many dramatic qualities, yet for me the ending was rather dull and boring including the final confrontation and the explanation afterwards (which was unnecessarily long), mainly because I had figured out who did it and why in and around the second death. The highlight of this section of the book is when Palk says the wrong person’s name when he starts the arrest, justifying the error by saying:
‘How could I be expected to recognise anyone in that get-up?’
Personally I wasn’t that impressed with the choice of killer, although I did enjoy all the allusions Rutland made to other Golden Age detectives in the summing up. I don’t feel the ending fitted the rest of the novel very well as it attempted to finish on a light hearted note (a tone more suited to a Haynes’ novel), which contrasted with the narrative prior to it, which I felt was darker and bleaker, with deaths being increasingly vicious. I think an issue with the book is the sheer number of characters, which are not just there for background colour, but do actually play a significant role in the plot and surprisingly I haven’t actually mentioned them all in this review. On the other hand though a strength of Rutland’s narrative style is the imagery she utilises such as the description of Miss Brendon, who feels awfully reminiscent of Mitchell’s Mrs Bradley:
‘…unattractive bird. Her nose was beaky, and her hands claw like…. the appearance of a peering white owl.’
Rutland’s novel is quite a dark Golden Age mystery where flippant remarks made by residents or sleuths, which would have been innocent in other novelist’s hands, tend to come back and bite them. Women don’t get a favourable depiction in this novel, especially older women, despite the occasional glimpses at the pain they are really hiding. The younger women in the novel tend to be viewed more favourably by Palk and other male character, the former even wanting to ask one of the suspects out for dinner. Though as I said Rutland definitely gets the last laugh on Palk. Despite the fact the mystery was easily solvable I find Rutland’s narrative voice an intriguing one and shall definitely read the next in the series Bleeding Hooks (1940), which in a way will show whether the issues pointed out in this review are novel specific or endemic, I’m hoping for the former.