I’m long overdue another foray into the work of June Wright, having already read her first novel, Murder in the Telephone Exchange (1948) last year. The title for Wright’s second book comes from a line in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part 2: ‘so bad a death argues a monstrous life’ and boy was the primary victim, James Holland, a monster. But I am getting ahead of ahead of myself, as the story narrated by Maggie Matheson, (now married to a policemen and has a 2 year son, Tony,) begins with her house hunting in the suburb of Middleburn. She has her sights on the Dower House, a cottage on the “estate” of Holland Hall. Cruikshank the estate agent is pessimistic of her getting the place as the owner, James Holland, has repeatedly refused to sell to buyers. From her very first meeting with him, James is shown to be a tyrannical figure who bullies those around him, especially his daughter in law, Yvonne. Even to Maggie he dismisses her ‘as though… [she were] a prospective housemaid…’ Yet despite all the odds, James does agree to rent the Dower House to Maggie with the right to buy after 6 months. Also living at Holland Hall is Yvonne’s son, Jimmy (named after James’ now dead son), James’ sister and her husband, Elizabeth and Ernest Mulqueen and their daughter, Ursula.
Even from this early point, odd things begin to occur. During Maggie’s view of the house the estate Cruikshank disappears, a disappearance that his sister belatedly reports a few days later. But what is of greater concern to Maggie is the treatment of Yvonne and her son by the other residents at Holland Hall. Her father in law is particularly controlling of the care of his grandson, not allowing him to be seen at the local health centre. However it quickly comes apparent that the baby is far from well. Yet why is Yvonne far from keen to take her son to the local doctor? This becomes even more sinister when not only does Maggie hear Yvonne call James a ‘child-murderer,’ but she also then hears two other linked characters discuss a case where they fear for a child’s safety.
Things come to a head the night James invites Maggie and her husband, John to dinner, a dinner James never arrives at. It is during the night that his body is found in the grounds, shot. Unsurprisingly there are a number of odd circumstances surrounding the night in question. A light flashing from the tower, an additional firing noise heard only by Maggie and the fact that during the presumed critical time none of the Holland residents have a solid alibi. As John proceeds with his official investigation, Maggie conducts her own, picking up relevant information through her social engagements as a young mother and she quickly finds out many a secret about the suspects and the victim, who manages to become an even greater monster in the eyes of Maggie and the reader. The fact that many other characters want to tell her husband information through her also helps. Jimmy’s declining health also grabs Maggie attention and wonders whether his own life is at risk, being the heir of James’ will. Maggie in some ways is quite reckless in her disregard for the killers’ warning against her continued prying, but will she maintain this stance when the killer’s attention turns towards her son?
Maggie as Amateur Sleuth
The opening to this novel is brilliant, comically writing back to the Miss Marple tradition of female sleuths, which Maggie tries to distance herself from, whilst also trying to justify her role in the events she records. A favourite section was this one, which definitely made me chuckle:
‘I am not a femme fatale. Crime does not dog my footsteps… Neither am I one of those sleuths for whom corpses crop up conveniently. Such individuals should, in the interests of public safety, be marooned a desert island. Their presence in the community is an incentive to murder.’
I think Wright’s tongue is in her cheek though at this point and Maggie is aligned in some ways to the Marple way of detecting, which I’ll comment on later.
Mignon G. Eberhart was a favourite author of Wright and there are some HIBK elements in this novel. For instance female experience is a primary focus in this text and woven into the story are HIBK type comments by Maggie: ‘Perhaps that was another time when I should have felt some overwhelming emotion that would warn me of the web of mystery into which I was to be dragged. But I didn’t.’ However, when she is afraid she does try to confront her fears. For instance at one point she says, ‘I stood clamped to the floor, the only moving thing about me an icy drop winding its way down my spine.’ After this point she is able to then answer the door and the entrance of the subsequent visitor is also the entrance of Wright undercutting HIBK conventions, with the prosaic and every day. This occurs several times in the book, yet Wright is an adept author who even provides a twist on the purpose of this consistent undercutting.
Maggie for me does incorporate some of Miss Marple’s detecting style, despite being younger and married with a child, as her daily life of being a young mother brings her into contact with a lot of people socially through whom she overhears snippets of information pertinent to the case. She is savvy enough to sort through the conversation she hears and detect the truth from the lies. However, she does diverge from Miss Marple in that she can be much more direct and blunt in her approach and is sarcastic from time to time. Her role as a policeman’s wife also aids her information gathering as she herself says that the suspects were’ all… out to use me as a buffer between their uneasy consciences and John.’ Other characters find her amateur sleuthing quite amusing, perhaps because they think she is harmless in it, such as the postmaster who happily tells her about James’ telegrams, calling her ‘Mrs Holmes… Mrs Poirot… [and] Mrs Chan’ in a matter of sentences. Intriguingly he doesn’t call her after any female fictional sleuths. She gets even with his jesting though when she refers to him as ‘Dr Watson.’ Her approach to detection is not infallible as her eagerness does leave her open to attack from the killer and her blunt approach to talking to suspects arguably has some unforeseen consequences.
Further Writing Back to Miss Marple
Miss Marple, although an old spinster, has a finger on the pulse of the St Mary Mead and she is well aware of everything goes on. Yet in the story, this suburb which is quite village like, (more on that later), is quite lacking in spinster figures. Instead there is Arthur Cruikshank who early on in the book says to Maggie that, ‘I am the most dangerous man in Middleburn… Not much that has gone on in Middleburn over the last thirty years has escaped my notice. I know such a lot about everyone.’ I found this line intriguing because in some ways Cruikshank is taking on traits which we might readily associate with Miss Marple, though of course Miss Marple is much more benevolent than he is. Furthermore the only significant spinster character is Daisy Potts-Power, who you can tell from the surname, is no Miss Marple. She goes gooey over babies and children, though it can’t be said that the devotion or gooeyness is reciprocated.
Through the eyes of Maggie we are given a snapshot into life for ordinary women in 1940s Australia, yet it is in this ordinariness that the clues to the case come about, even in the arena of baby care, a topic Maggie is very passionate about. The career vs. marriage and a home debate is also interwoven into the story in an engaging and fresh way. For example, Maggie finds it quite amusing that Ursula thinks arranging flowers at the hall is as equal a contribution as her father supervising the family farm. Maggie responds by saying it is ‘Incredible… I didn’t believe there was such a person left. Don’t you ever want to get out into the big world? Carve yourself a career or something?’ Ursula replies that her ‘Uncle James says that the only career for a woman in our station of life is marriage’ and seems quite content for James to find her a husband. Maggie is quite modern in her dislike of this attitude, yet it is interesting that she herself gave up her own career when she became married, devoting her time to her son and the odd bit of sleuthing. Although to be fair to her we never know whether she would have gone back to work when he was older, as this is the last novel she features in. Moreover, she doesn’t lose her proactive-ness as for instance it is her who wants to move into a house rather than a flat and then follows up this desire actively by house hunting by herself.
On the one hand Maggie’s marriage provides Wright with opportunities to create comedy within her work as for example when John tries to interview Maggie about the disappearance of Cruikshank she overturns the usual solemnity of a police interview by sitting on his knee. Yet on the other hand in regards to detective work I think this marriage is also used to look at marital/gender roles and within this there is ambivalence. For example Maggie says that during a case when John comes home ‘he seem[s] to sag completely and to depend on me for a renewal of spirits.’ This puts her in the supportive role, yet this doesn’t stop her from mentally criticising his questioning of suspects and her subsequent actions are in some ways responses to his perceived inadequacies. John’s response to Maggie’s sleuthing is also complex. He doesn’t want her to actively sleuth but he is happy to obtain the information she comes across. However it is clear that he doesn’t want her to act on this information, the finding of it is enough: ‘You’ve done your part.’ Consequently it is not surprising that Maggie does withhold things from him such as when there is a night time intruder in their home, as she doesn’t want to explain why she was up because she was copying down some evidence from the police file.
As Lucy Sussex suggests in the introduction to my copy of the text, this story does undercut the village/ country house murder novel. Wright in the novel emphasises the suburb’s village like qualities: ‘although classed as a suburb, it had more the aspect of a country village, so isolated was it from its neighbours.’ Yet this is not a village of old biddies, as its’ main demographic is young married couples and the streets ‘teemed with smartly dressed young matrons wheeling baby carriages.’ The separateness between this village like suburb and more central Melbourne dwellings is portrayed through fashion as Maggie comments that: ‘My town suit and hat were glanced at curiously. I presented a rather incongruous figure among the tailored slacks and careless bare heads.’ James Holland is set up as a squire and his way of living is ‘based on the ambition to establish a class parallel to… the landed gentry of the home country.’ This is shown in a way to make James look ridiculous through the design of his “Hall” and when his plans to start a fox hunt go awry. Yet there is a very deadly and sinister edge given to James’ squire ambitions. He holds onto neighbouring land to stop further spreading of the suburb and he controls what shops operate in the area through leases and local shopkeepers are required to buy supplies from his farm: ‘Thus Mr Holland held a tight grip on the village and its inhabitants. He was the Squire. They were the tenants.’ This state of affairs is riddled with tensions and moments of rebellion in ways that are not apparent in English set country house detective novels. I think the country house trope is also undermined through the character of Ames, James’ dogsbody, who has many roles within his property, indicated by his forever changing costumes which denote the current role. This superficiality in some ways reminds the reader of how false James’ “country house” and “feudal” ambitions are.
Overall I loved this book, making a great start to the month, after quite a lot of mixed reading last month. There is such depth to Wright’s writing and I enjoyed the humorous moments. Maggie is a brilliant central character. She is smart and sarcastic, but also genuine and sincere. The murder of James is built up to well, with an increasing sense of doom and tension. The mystery in this book is complex with many strands to it. There is more than the death of James and in terms of murder methods Wright is unique – though for reasons of spoilers I can’t elaborate on this. The motivations behind the crime is intricate, yet all the odd events of the plot fit together in the final solution. Characterisation which is paramount for me is superb in this book with Wright giving great individuality to everyone and I liked how she played around with character types and also how characters who initially appeared to be one thing then turn out to something far more complex and different later on. In my Verse Chorus Press edition of the story there is also an interview Lucy Sussex conducted with Wright in 1996 at the back, which I enjoyed reading. Wright emphasises the importance of writing about what you know and I think this is something she capitalises on in both this book and in Murder in Telephone Exchange. I was also intrigued as to her reasons for stopping writing about Maggie, (readers kept trying to conflate her with her main character), and for halting her writing career, (helping her husband to start and run a business instead). I was also able to find out more about her later works which I definitely want to try and also about what it is like to write whilst bringing up lots of children. It seems that writing was a way of letting off steam caused by motherhood and she is known for saying that ‘writing bloody murders was a good way to avoid infanticide’ and her preferred title for this book was Who Would Murder a Baby.
All in all I strongly recommend this book and I also think that these two Maggie books are ripe for film or TV adaptation.
John at Pretty Sinister has also reviewed So Bad a Death on his blog.