Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Object of any other colour
One of the great things about the monthly challenge run at Past Offences is that you can end up reading books from authors you have never heard of before or have been meaning to give a try, but have never got round to it. This month it was the latter for me with Joanna Cannan’s Murder Included (1950) and Cannan is an author I have been meaning to try for a while, although I believe she is better known for her stories for children concerning ponies. Horses do feature in this novel though, but this is unsurprising since it is set in the countryside at the residence of Sir Charles d’Estray, a country estate forced to take in paying guests to make ends meet.
However, the story begins with the Chief Constable and Superintendent Treadwell filling in Inspector Ronald Price from Scotland Yard about a recent murder, that of Elizabeth Hudson, a distant relative of Sir Charles’ who was staying with him and was killed with a poisoned glass of whisky. They have called in Price due to their multitude of connections and family ties they have to Sir Charles and his family and the servants living there. The extent of this sets up this country area in a humorous way, especially in that the social class system in place comes across strongly as outdated even for the time which it is set in. Price born and bred in an urban environment is not impressed and sees the whole set up as insular, anachronistic and narrow. Although I would argue that whilst Price questions and undermines the social order and the class system in place here, he too is still a part of it and conveniently uses the bits which suit him, but more on that later.
Returning to Sir Charles’ home, there is a full household with the family members consisting of his second wife Bunny (half French and from the Riviera), his eldest children Patricia and Hugo and his step daughter Lisa. As to the guests, there are Mr and Mrs Rose, Mr and Mrs Scampnell, along with Mrs Scampnell’s daughter called Margot Rattray and finally Flight Lieutenant Marvin, who was introduced to the house through Miss Hudson and is one of the few people to seemingly have a good alibi, being away in London at the time of the murder. I found it interesting that there were a number of second marriages within the book and I thought perhaps this was reflective of the times it was written in and therefore separated it slightly from the country house murder mysteries of the 1920s and 1930s. As is common in detective fiction, the home life of the family is far from idyllic with Patricia greatly disliking her father’s remarriage and even Bunny is beginning to have second thoughts about her marriage, thinking a traditional English life is not all it is cracked up to be. The constant criticism from Elizabeth Hudson didn’t make this any easier and it is not surprising that the newcomers Bunny and Lisa are driven to bursting point by it, inconveniently expressing desires to kill Elizabeth out loud. Inconvenient that is when she later ends up dead and this animosity is not forgotten, as the other inhabitants are mostly quick to relate, expand and exaggerate this to Inspector Price.
However, even before Price questions the suspects, Bunny becomes his prime target, reading her as a gold digger and as distrustful and dubious due to her past life living outside England (which is apparently something he takes a dim view of). As his questioning progresses it is easy to see how he is attentive to those who support his view and dismisses those who do not. Even worse for Bunny is that the other family members and guests begin to also turn against her and her daughter, closing ranks against them, making social interactions even with her husband fraught and unbearable. But as tensions mount and relationships disintegrate more dramatic developments are to follow, with the killer striking out again. But is that killer Bunny? Price certainly thinks so and is determined to get his man, or woman rather. I enjoyed the ending of this book which in parts was certainly chilling and struck a definite note of modernity in regards to breaking away from social expectations.
So far I have only broadly hinted at the role class plays in this book, but for me this is the first book I have read where class has such a pervasive and powerful role in the direction of the investigation Price leads. Price comes into the case disliking the area preferring council houses to gentry land lords and thinks the local inhabitants are ‘medieval’ and ‘bumpkins’. He even makes a gaff suggesting to Treadwell that there must be lots of old women around the area who know about plants, botany and herbs, even suggesting the woman at the gatehouse could be such a person. Awkwardly this person turns out to Treadwell’s great aunt, an ex-lady maid who in her job visited many embassies. This is just such an example of how narrowed minded (an accusation Price throws at others) Price is himself and how stereotypical his view of other people are, which of course makes him a hypocrite, as he utilises the very class system he tries to pull down. These stereotypes mean that genteel country ladies are to be implicitly trusted, whilst new money or people rising above their station are not. Price dislikes the old class system yet it still clouds his judgement, affecting which witnesses and suspects he believes and disbelieves.
On the other hand though this does not mean I sided with the more ‘posh’ characters as they are also revealed to be deficient in key areas such as honesty, loyalty and integrity. Overall one is drawn to the characters who were transplanted into the community, Bunny and Lisa, as although not everything they do is right, they are honest, sincere, genuine and dependable and are the characters I think modern readers will be most able to identify with.
An interesting effect this class bias has on the plot of the novel is that there is no assurance of whether truth and justice will prevail, adding to the tension and interest to the story. Whilst these class issues may irk some readers, I found it enjoyable to read as I thought Cannan depicted the issue well in her book, avoiding presenting it as black and white, highlighting the ambiguities and murkiness of the subject. In addition Price’s one track mind does produce a number of comic moments such as one I already mentioned concerning Treadwell’s great aunt.