Source: Review Copy
The title of this novel, although sounding a bit like a pirate novel, (has anyone ever written a pirate based detective novel I wonder?) actually alludes to the fishing milieu of the novel, which is also signposted in the introductory quote from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865). This novel fits comfortably into that very small Golden Age niche of fishing themed detective novels, which also includes works such as Ngaio Marsh’s Scales of Justice (1955). Both novels actually share a plot device which is that of two fisherman having a rivalry over catching an uncatchable fish. Bleeding Hooks (1940) is set in Aberllyn, a village in Wales known for its fishing and most of the action takes place in its inn, The Fisherman’s Rest.
Like her first novel, Knock, Murderer, Knock (1938), Rutland uses a central event to introduce her range of characters (which are thankfully fewer in number than her previous novel). The central event in Bleeding Hooks is at the inn, after a hard day’s fishing and the various inhabitants have returned with their catches and the writing style for this scene is subtly comic, such as through General Sir Courtney Haddox who regrets bringing his sister, Ethel on holiday with him due to the fact she keeps on embarrassing him. There is also young Claude Weston, who is an up and coming magician and has a pet monkey and his father, Major Jeans, Mr and Mrs Pindar, Mrs Mumsby, who seems to man mad with a theatrical background and is considered by the narrator to be ‘blatant and gaudy in appearance’. However, although Rutland is excellent at writing horrific female characters, she also makes such characters more complex by giving them moments of weakness, such as with Mrs Mumsby who has seemingly lost her husband and child. But of course these moments are fleeting, as Rutland does not want us to feel sympathy for her characters and Mrs Mumsby is a woman on a mission to rectify her current situation. A mysterious man also appears but is quickly identified as Mr Winkley, who solved the case in Rutland’s first novel in an unofficial capacity, despite having a job in Scotland Yard, which involves him fitting random pieces of evidence into cases to solve them, making it seem like a predecessor to Roy Vicker’s Department of Dead Ends (1947). Though a general note of warning I would give at this point is that you should be wary of first impressions, as Rutland does try to do a fair bit of wool pulling at this juncture.
Two other important characters in the novel are Pussy, (possibly one of the worst named characters in Golden Age writing) who is on holiday with her mother and boyfriend and who seems to personify the bright young things of the 1920s, wearing less conventional clothing and in her first entrance to the novel is reading a book on sexual psychology. It is quite amusing then that Pussy lacks sufficient self-awareness to see how she fits the bright young things category and instead resists being labelled as such, thinking of how the bright young things of the 20s are now ‘hags’, divorcees and mothers at the start of the 40s. Her boyfriend, continuing on the badly named characters theme is called Piggy. However, the least popular character at the inn is Mrs Mumsby who annoys the owners, makes hurtful gossip about the Pindars not being married and her man eating behaviour makes most of the other male inhabitants run a mile or at the very least look depressed when she is mentioned. The next day though, whilst napping after lunch on the shore of the fishing lake Mrs Mumsby is found dead; Claude’s monkey hitting her purpled face and a salmon fly embedded in her hand. The doctor, the policeman (despite really wanting a murder), amongst others are happy it was a natural death caused by shock, but not everyone is so convinced…
Mr Winkley, despite being on holiday, can’t help but turn this into a busman’s one, though as far as he sees it his investigation is hampered rather than helped by the help proffered by Piggy and Pussy, who in the bright young thing style (which kind of jars with the tone of the novel) want to solve the mystery too. Suspicion of this being a murder rests on the particular fly used, but thankfully the fishing specific information in the novel is embedded in small amounts and therefore is not off putting for the non-fishing reader. However, the field of suspects is a wide one, with many of the characters fishing nearby at the time of Mrs Mumsby’s death. Suspicion though is not just with the characters who fished, but with the non-fishing characters as well, who are displaying signs of great anxiety and fear and of course were not where they said they were, including even Piggy and Pussy! This is a taxing case for our trio, though Mr Winkley takes the brunt of the work, with occasional discussions between the three of them and Pussy intermittently annoying people with unsubtle questioning. Working without official support (although Winkley does use some of his work contacts) makes you wonder whether the case will fizzle out with lack of evidence. But with late night attacks, which make characters suspect those they love and care about, near death experiences and mysterious absences the action keeps on going until the end.
POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT!
However, what I really loved about this novel and I hope this doesn’t count as a spoiler (look away if you think you’ll be able to deduce too much from this), is the way that once Winkley presents the characters and readers with his solution to the mystery, I like how Rutland plays a trick on her fictional detective (which she also did in her first novel), finishing the novel by turning the solution completely upside down. Moreover, I love how she utilises science and police forensics to do this, which are given more than a cursory glance and the range of tests they can do is indicated. It isn’t all about finger prints:
‘I’m afraid my sympathies are often with the criminal… Everything is so difficult for him in these scientific days. Wireless that gathers millions of people into a huge search-party, laboratories that analyse everything from his hair to his toe-nails – why the poor fellow never gets a sporting chance.’
Furthermore, in contrast to authors such as Annie Haynes, Rutland having delivered a final blow to her sleuth’s confidence and self-assurance, is not interested in saying what happens to the rest of the characters, leaving several threads hanging. But I think this lack of closure is best captured with the closing lines which describe one of Scotland Yard’s scientists as the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland, ‘leaving behind him… nothing but his grin’ and I think like the Cheshire Cat, Rutland prefers to take a more enigmatical approach to wrapping up her narratives.
However, one thing that did surprise me considering how different Haynes and Rutland are as writers, there are some remnants of sensation fiction in Bleeding Hooks, which I didn’t expect and these elements are a mixture of useful clues and red herrings.
SAFE TO READ AGAIN
I much preferred this novel to the first one as the mystery is sufficiently complex here and this meant that I could enjoy the dark humour and the author’s twists on the characters more, (she pulls off some very clever ones in this book), as I wasn’t annoyed that I had solved everything half way through. Moreover, I was also able to appreciate further the harsher world she creates and it occurred to me that the reason she perhaps uses unusual methods of dying is that they reveal the cruelty which can be a part of human nature. My only niggle is with the characters Pussy and Piggy, especially the former, as I’m not entirely sure they fit, as first of all their bright young things aura jars with the novel’s tone a bit, but also they don’t quite live up to the expectations of other genuine bright young things detectives such as Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence in Partners in Crime (1929). This is because unlike Tommy and Tuppence, I think Pussy and Piggy’s help in the investigation is rather minimal, but perhaps I am little jaded about such types of characters having watched the latest BBC adaptation of Partners in Crime.
In addition, I think I also found Pussy an annoying character, as not only is she rather dim to say the least (confusing Shylock and Sherlock), she is much less kind than Tuppence:
‘She always did feel bored when anyone made a long speech, partly because it meant too much sustained effort to listen, and partly because she never could understand why anyone should want to talk to her at such length.’
At this point in reading I did think it would be more accurate to remove the last three words from the final sentence.
However this is a great read and I think it should be read before Knock Murderer Knock, as nothing will be lost by reading them out of order and more importantly readers new to Rutland will be able to see her writing skills at their best.