Measure for Murder (1941) by Clifford Witting

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Measure for Murder

This is my first experience of reading Clifford Witting’s work and according to him this story had its roots in a real live production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1604), which Witting saw in May 1939. The theatre in the story is partially based on the one Witting saw this play at, called the Bromley Little Theatre in Kent. Measure for Murder (1941) opens with an unusual prologue. It is 1940 and Mrs Mudge, the cleaning lady is busy tidying the Little Theatre in Lulverton, which is run by the local amateur dramatics’ society. But she is in for a surprise when she finds a corpse in the ticket office, stabbed with a dagger – a prop from the society’s latest play, Measure for Measure. What was so unusual about the ending of this prologue was the inclusion of two other “characters” – the Muses of tragedy and comedy, Melpomene and Thalia respectively. They are separate from the rest of the text, but act like a Greek theatre chorus, commenting on the action; unsurprisingly Melpomene acts more smugly, insisting she knew something like this would happen, whilst Thalia is the more astonished of the two. I enjoyed this feature of the novel but think it is a shame it was not used more extensively.

The rest of the story is told in two parts, with the first going back in time running up until the murder we learn about in the prologue and Witting wisely does not reveal the name of the victim until the end of the first section, leaving the reader to guess who they might be. Needless to say that my own guesses were completely wrong and the surprise of the victim choice was one of the strongest features of the novel. In the first section Walter Vaughan takes us back to his childhood (briefly), explaining how he eventually ended up living and working in Lulverton. When first reading this I wasn’t too keen on the autobiographical style (reminding me a little of Dicken’s Great Expectations (1861)), as it seemed a bit slow, but as the story progresses it becomes clear what the connections are between Vaughan’s past and present. The time period for this first section predominantly covers 1939-1940 and we are an audience to the changing and disintegrating relationships which take place at Vaughan’s lodgings, Mrs Doubleday’s guest house and at the theatre. One key link between Vaughan’s past and present is Peter Ridpath, also known as Tiddler, a childhood friend of Vaughan’s who is down on his luck. Consequently Vaughan gives him a position within his business, an action which becomes regrettable for both. Tiddler quickly ingratiates himself at Mrs Doubleday’s, particularly with the women, much to Jack Gough’s dismay, who is both involved in the local theatre and a fellow lodger of Vaughan’s. He is described as working at a bank but also as someone who writes poetry, a gentle man with a rough ugly looking Caliban-like visage who has unrequited love for another lodger, Myrna, a beautiful local school teacher who seems much more interested in Tiddler. Tiddler initially seems much taken with her, but then he also seems to be very taken with a number of other women and he frequently sneaks off and is continually short of money, a factor which definitely strains his friendship with Vaughan.

Alongside the growing tension in the guest house, we are also see how the amateur dramatics society was started in the first place, adding further characters to our cast list such as Paul Manhow and a new leading lady, Elizabeth Faggott (who Vaughan falls hopelessly in love with). They get a number of plays under their belt before tackling Measure for Measure, but in some ways this is their downfall, as this play brings out a lot of the underlying rivalries and petty disputes different cast members have against each other. The outsider factor of the theatre owner pressuring the group to change the cast list also causes further unrest as further animosity grows within the theatrical group.

With all that is happening within the theatre, the reader although surprised by the choice of victim, will not be surprised that someone is murdered after staying late at the theatre after rehearsals. Inspector Charlton is called into investigate. The beginning of his investigation is a little trying for the reader as we have to read the notes he records about the scene of the crime (not that scintillating or illuminating). Thankfully though this is only a few pages and for the majority of his investigation the case is focused on his conversations with the suspects. After all ‘Inspector Charlton has said that real crime detection lies not in microscopic and test-tube, but in asking innumerable questions and weeding out the answers.’ Although we are only given the edited highlights from his numerous interviews. This is a case with a number of leads and unusual circumstances: a missing manuscript, the sudden departure of a suspect and more than one face showing evidence of a punch up, to name a few. Again the reader is not surprised to hear that more than one member of the theatrical society returned to theatre on the fateful night and Charlton has to wade through a lot of romantic entanglements and theatrical feuding before he finds the killer.

Overall Thoughts

Overall I think Witting’s characterisation is one of his strongest skills in this novel, as during the novel the moral ambiguity of the characters is increased, meaning they are not easily typed. He is also very good at portraying complex emotional relationships, which are messy rather than straight forward. Even with minor characters Witting brings them to life and his use of animal imagery certainly hit me in the prologue of the story where Mrs Mudge is described ‘like a breathless seal,’ when she climbs the stairs and the vacuum she uses is said to be ‘like an unhappy dog on a lead’. I think the only area in terms of writer’s skills Witting needed to improve on in this novel was pacing, as there were some slow patches and I think he could have used a more concise and linear approach to the first third of the novel. Although I did enjoy the understated metafictional aspects of the text, which at times make the reader aware of its own construction and also calls into question narrator reliability.

As I mentioned earlier this is a novel set in the early years of WW2 and the role this factor plays in the novel is an interesting one. In particular humour of the understated kind is generated when the war is juxtaposed with the pettier events going on in Lulverton and there is a sense of bathos during these moments. For example the decision making going into the cast of Measure for Measure is paralleled with Germany invading Poland. Furthermore, Witting includes a scene where lodgers at Mrs Doubleday are waiting for the radio announcement telling the country what Hitler’s response was to the UK’s ultimatum concerning Poland. When war is declared it is quite a moving and sad scene, yet the broadcast is interrupted by other characters who are fixing a motorbike. The gravitas of the scene is undercut but in a way I think it added verisimilitude to it, as you can imagine such a thing happening in real life. Although the killer is a surprise which is good, I think there are two main strands to this case and these are imbalanced in my opinion as one of them is established and examined much more than the other, which could be seen as a last minute plot strand and not much of a substantiated one. I think Witting just gets away with it, but there is a feeling of it being an unfair twist in some ways. Alternatively though it does fit more into the novel’s sense of tragedy, as in a way there is a feeling that the events in this novel occur due to fate and characters often say things like ‘If only…’ Additionally, when I looked further into what comprises Greek tragedy I found it interesting that one of the main tragic situations found in such plays involves a ‘man’s miscalculation of reality which brings about the fatal situation’ (Anon, 2007). This could be applied in many ways to several of the characters in this story, including the victim. Furthermore, in Greek tragedy ‘everybody’s fate is connected in some way to the others’ and… it is common to all characters in a tragic situation that they are confronted with a choice’ (Anon, 2007) and these choices are very often ‘fatal’ (Anon, 2007). I can’t give specific examples of this as it would lead to spoilers of varying proportions but I will say that there are several key choices in this story which bring about disasters and death. On the whole despite my few issues with the book I did enjoy it and I look forward to someday finding another second hand copy of his work, as this novel showed a lot of strengths and promise and some sparks of originality, such as with the Muse characters.

Rating: 4/5


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