Source: Review Copy (Greyladies)
Thanks again to the Greyladies publishers I have been able to try out another new author and even better it fits in with the chosen year for Past Offence’s monthly challenge.
In many ways this story has quite a modern feel to it, with its focus being predominantly on one family and their relationship dynamics which at the beginning of the novel are very strained. The Binn family is terrorised by its patriarch, Jabez who bullies his wife Selina and their grown up children Cynthia and Adrian. He is frequently bad tempered and is controlling with money. Yet it doesn’t feel like just another detective fiction trope or cliché, as Channon’s depiction of Jabez makes him seem much more real than some of the tyrannical figures found in country house murder mysteries. However there is rebellion afoot in the Binn household, as Cynthia and Adrian plan to treat their mother to a day out at Windsor for her birthday, without telling their father who would ban it. Marian Marley and her son Stephen (neighbours to the Binns) are also party to the secret outing. And when the outing arrives the trip is enacted with military precision, which seems to be pay off for all concerned when it gives Stephen an opportunity to tell Cynthia of his love for her, which she reciprocates.
However, when they return there are a few hints that someone has been in their home – the bath has been cleaned and all the old newspapers have gone. But no one could have expected the truth and their shock is felt by the reader when it emerges that someone has put a severed arm, wrapped in newspaper up their living room chimney. Further police investigation reveals more body parts in different chimneys and in a bin in a neighbouring street is the head. With the head found, the identity of the corpse is easy to discover – it’s their next door neighbour Mr Marley, who his wife and son thought was on a business trip.
From this point onwards things do not go well for Jabez Binn. His hatred of his next door neighbour (whose chickens keep ruining his garden), is well known in the street and soon reaches the ears of the police. Further eye witness testimony and circumstantial evidence damns him even more, but none more so than his own brash and aggressive demeanour which even leads to him slapping the police inspector (never a wise move). Understandably he is committed for trial, yet this case is not completely clear cut, as there is a great deal of mystery surrounding the victim, who is not entirely what he appeared to be. So not only is there a fear of Jabez being sent down for a murder his family didn’t think he did, there is also the risk that his conviction could prevent Stephen and Cynthia marrying (as Selina hardly thinks it fitting for a man to marry the daughter of the man convicted for his father’s murder).
This was one of the key themes which intrigued me in this story as Channon’s depiction of women and men is incredibly nuanced and detailed, with characters being shaped by the unfolding circumstances and it is these circumstances which radically change the roles of men and women within the Binn family. At the start of the story the family setup reminded me of that found in the TV drama House Wife 49, where the events of WW2 enable a house wife to gain independence from her overbearing husband. Selina mirrors this trajectory though it is a murder which is the catalyst for her change in behaviour.
Domineering masculinity to varying degrees can be found in both Jabez and Adrian, who tires of his father’s behaviour and begins to assert himself. Selina responds to this with acquiescence: ‘she had been accustomed, for not so many years to bow to masculine authority’. Yet if the murder reveals anything about this family it is that the male members are actually very squeamish and it is Cynthia who has to open up the first grizzly package containing the severed limb. Adrian also realises at this point that his father is the same: ‘Adrian knew only too well the horrible effect which such a sight had upon himself, but he had never been aware that it affected his father also,’ which interestingly enables him to find sympathy for Jabez. Additionally Selina is kept in the dark about the crime as the others worry about her reaction, but once she has got to be told Jabez baulks at the task which reminded me of the old adage “inside every bully is a coward”.
As the case progresses and things begin to look dark for Jabez, it is interesting to see how Selina transforms into a much more capable person and diverges from how she used to be. This is exemplified when it is said that ‘she put her knitting aside, preparing to give them her whole attention, and this in itself was rather awe-inspiring. For those gently clicking needles were almost inseparable from one’s idea of Mummy.’ The change in Selina is represented through her putting aside her knitting as that symbolises her old way of being. Though these changes in Selina do not stop her from praising her husband and reminding others of his good points, but this may be the stress of the situation talking.
Despite the difficult circumstances though, Selina rarely subsides or becomes overly emotional, which leads to Cynthia saying that ‘Mummy is like another person since all this happened.’ Adrian though has a more nuanced view of the situation replying that ‘she’s the same person, but a person who has been crushed out of sight all these years, so that we had all forgotten what she is really like.’ Jabez’s also notices a change in Selina, finding that she is no longer cowed by his temper: ‘Mr Binns, staring, found his eyes met by so cool and decided a gaze that involuntarily he looked away. The world had turned upside down, of course, but to have Selina speaking to him like that…’ It seems Jabez’s own behaviour improves in relation to how Selina responds to him, as when she stops pandering to all his whims and allowing him to be aggressive towards her (which Selina’s friends and family thought was the root of the problem to begin with), Jabez is forced into altering his actions.
Although Selina is not the only one with a less than ideal husband and this is one area in which Channon shows her ability to depict the depth of people’s characters and portray relationships which are far less idealistic and more real. Her recreation of domestic violence which is predominantly psychological is very realistic (and gives the story a more modern feel), which is aided by the fact that at the start of the story she shows the warped perception Jabez has of things. However, Jabez is not a completely bad character, he is shown to be redeemable and events in his own past are disclosed throughout the story, which indicate how his past may have contributed towards his behaviour in the present.
But this is not a dark and grim read and Channon incorporates a number of humorous elements such as the spinster Miss Wimble who craves scandalous gossip and is not above informing on Jabez. It is this character who is used to describe Jabez’s initial trial and this was an excellent choice on Channon’s part as she makes the event so amusing due to the information she prioritises, her perceptions of things and the way she constantly bickers with her sister who she is telling about the trial. Here are a couple of examples:
‘And did you kiss the Book?’
‘I understand that kissing is out of fashion now; and indeed the Book was so very old and greasy, and had evidently been handled by such undesirable people, that I should have been very sorry to do more than hold it…’
‘I had to give my name in full…’
‘And you age?’
‘No! Of course not!… What senseless questions you ask…’
Moreover the decision to use Miss Wimble to close the novel was a good one and also reveals Channon’s ability to write an effective monologue.
I really enjoyed reading this book as it had a number of an unexpected elements such as the humour and also the violence of the crime. This is a very character driven novel and I liked how the characters were realistically and plausibly affected by the murder case. I think the fact the story focused on the suspects and witnesses made this more doable and the inspector is quite a peripheral character in some ways. I did spot the killer very early on due to the smallness of the cast of suspects and one tell-tale remark. But this did not really effect my enjoyment of the story as firstly I kind of forgot about it and secondly I think there were other parts of the story which interested me more. The whodunit aspect is not the sum total of this story, as there are many questions surrounding the reasons for why Mr Marley was murdered, whether or not Jabez will be proved innocent and how his family members will cope with and react to the situation. Furthermore, Channon’s writing style is very engaging and I liked how the early events of the book are linked up to the final solution of the case.