Source: Review Copy
This was Rutland’s final novel and was written under difficult personal circumstances, including her divorce, looking after a small child and also trying to not get blown to piece during the German bombings of WW2. Overall I think this is the most complex novel of Rutland’s trio of books, socially and psychologically, with her tackling uncomfortable topics such as Jewish suffering in Germany and anti-Semitism in Britain. Rutland also touches upon the role of women and how it is affected by the war, as well as presenting a very dark and at times disturbing vignette of relationships and marriages and one wonders whether Rutland’s divorce may have influenced this to an extent.
I think one of the reasons why this darkness is intensified is because instead of a large list of characters the novel is much more focused on one particular family and a few satellite characters. To say the Hardstaffe family is dysfunctional would be an understatement, Mr Hardestaffe, is the tyrannical old headmaster at the village school in Nether Naughton and is in love with a much younger member of staff, Charity Fuller and his interactions with her from the outset show a manipulative and possessive strain in his character. He refers to his wife as selfish and as a hypochondriac and when it seems Charity is disinclined to carry the relationship further whilst he is still married, his response takes a very sinister turn indeed. He has a middle aged daughter, Leda who lives with her parents and is introduced into the novel as a tweed wearing capable individual, a character we’re fairly familiar with and she spends her time helping with the war effort and breeding Sealyham dogs, who unfortunately are not toilet trained.
In the middle of all this Arnold Smith turns up, an author whose royalties are becoming so meagre he is forced to try a new genre: detective fiction and his perception of events colour a considerable amount of the narrative and in a way he is a fly on the wall to the goings on in his rather peculiar household, picking up on their overly formal dress code and use of a gong to signal dinner, an ‘exhibition of Victorianism,’ which seems excessive – it’s not like they live at Downton Abbey. Rutland shows a real flare for creating realistic characters with depth making even the typical wife who is obsessed with her health, an unusual character and I did notice that Leda’s language early on in the book carries a strong propaganda tone, sounding like a WW2 advice poster at times, which I found interesting, as it made me wonder if Rutland was trying to poke fun at such language use.
The theme of Jewish suffering in Germany and anti-Semitism is depicted in the novel through the character of Frieda, the new maid at the Hardestaffe residence, who is a Jewish Austrian refugee who fled her homeland. Rutland includes a mixture of opinions from both ends of the spectrum. Anti-Semitism can be found in Mrs Hardestaffe who suggests that if Jewish people are as hysterical as Frieda then Hitler can’t be blamed for his response and Leda calls Frieda ‘Jew’ rather than using her name. Conversely both the cook and Smith stand up for Frieda and point out the hardships Jews were going through. Moreover, Rutland also gives Frieda the opportunity to express her own opinions on the matter:
‘You do not understand… Because you are not German Jew. You say ‘Itler is bad man, must be kill. But if you are not Jew, you do not know how bad. You understand bombs and Luftwaffe, but you do not understand Gestapo and torture if you are not Jew like me…’
However, this is a theme which is carefully interwoven into the book and life for Smith though awkward at points carries on as normal. He struggles with his book, feeling he has inadequate experience (that’ll soon change), though he does oscillate between using either Mrs or Mr Hardestaffe as his fictionalised murder victim. Smaller incidences of violence occur such as Mr Hardestaffe beating a pupil within an inch of their life and what seems to be a late night case of domestic violence. Interestingly, although the latter is witnessed by Smith, he does nothing about it and I found it intriguing how his own actions and thoughts differ from those of his own fictional sleuth Noel Delare.
Events become increasingly dramatic when Smith returns to Nether Naughton, after a short trip to London where he was in a building which was bombed. A death has occurred at the Hardestaffe household and it’s murder! The name of the victim is delayed allowing for a darkly comic moment where Smith assuming he has been suffering from concussion confesses to the murder of Mr Hardestaffe. Which is fine, except it is Mrs Hardestaffe who is dead of a morphine overdose…
In the readers’ mind there is an obvious suspect of course, but for the Hardestaffe household the police interviews are an opportunity for accusing many others such as Frieda who possessed morphine and is regarded as unhinged after her difficult experiences in her homeland. The emergence of Leda’s brother also presents another angle to the case, as prior to recent will changes he was in line for a lot of money on his mother’s death. However, concrete evidence is lacking and when Mr Hardstaffe is found dead bludgeoned to death after having recently argued with several people, the case becomes increasingly complicated. This of course leads to further finger pointing and the arrival of Inspector Driver and Detective Sergeant Lovely from Scotland Yard, who provide a small running joke, based on the latter’s name:
‘I am Chief Inspector Driver. This is Lovely.’
‘Really! I’ve no doubt that you have a certain interest in your work… but I hardly think that is a suitable way of describing the murder of my parents to me.’
I could say a lot more but I worry about giving spoilers so I will only say that as the book draws to a close it seems like the murders will go unsolved due to lack of evidence, but then suddenly the narrative finishes in an incredibly dramatic way which left me gasping and going ‘Did that actually happen?’
The roles women took on during WW2 is a subtle theme of the novel, with even Mrs Hardstaffe knitting for soldiers and the servant problem is an issue for Hardstaffe household as so many young women are going to work for ammunition factories instead. The fact women’s fashion has changed to become more practical is also an idea raised in the novel. But even more generally, the need for women to be have some independence, to have a place, space and life of their own is voiced through the various female characters, with one woman interestingly appropriating Shylock’s ‘I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (1605). You can just read this book for its plot and characters but I think that looking at the themes of gender and Anti-Semitism gives the text another layer, a layer which I think darkly twists the narrative itself at points.
This may not be a novel filled with clues and is much more dependent on psychology and relationships, but I think this is Rutland’s strongest novel having a strong Frances Iles’ flavour. The writing style, the dialogue, the tone and dark sharp humour, along with the characters mesh together cohesively to provide an ending which cracks a punch.