Second read for Rich at Past Offence’s monthly Crimes of the Century Challenge. I began reading Dillon’s three mystery novels a couple of months ago unaware of the furore I was going to cause. Interesting word furore in that its archaic meaning is ‘a wave of enthusiastic admiration’ or ‘a craze’. Alas this is not happened with me, when other bloggers began to read some of Dillon’s work. Instead the modern use of the word is more applicable: an outbreak of public opprobrium – against Dillon as a writer that is, not me (well I hope not anyways!) I don’t think Dillon is at the forefront of the genre but then I wouldn’t have said she was an awful writer who you struggle to read. I found interesting characterisation and gentle comedy, where other bloggers found boredom and ageism. At this rate Dillon is fast becoming as divisive as Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935). Undeterred though I have decided to read Sent to his Account (1954), the second of Dillon’s mysteries, which is reputed as being her most puzzle focused piece.
The story begins with Miles de Cogan receiving the unexpected news that he has inherited a country mansion, £40,000, a title, acres of land and ownership of many properties in the neighbouring village of Dangan, from his now deceased cousin Sir Miles de Cogan. This is a considerable boost to 50yr old Miles who has been living off his meagre wages for doing the accountants of local shops. With the solicitor Mr Barne, Miles goes down to view his property, to see what his new life will be like. At the very least he’ll be leaving his landlady who he seems to have a sparring relationship with. Miles has great plans for his inheritance and much to the disdain of Mr Barne he brings Germaine (his cousin’s sister) back into the mansion after having mysteriously decamped to the lodge several years before. He also plans to expand the mill he owns and turn it into a cooperative. Yet not all is well in Dangan as relative newcomer, Tom Reid, has riled the villagers to breaking point with his plans to build a new road-house, which will threaten the local hotel’s business and according to some of the inhabitants of Dangan will also lower female morality. A campaign is begun to oust Reid from the community, yet it has barely begun before Reid is found poisoned in Miles’ library. There is a wide cast of suspects ranging from a disinclined fiancée and her preferred beau to an irate barman and even Miles could potentially have motive as prior to Reid’s death he threatens Miles in cloaked terms. Thankfully Inspector Henley is in the area on holiday and is more than happy to get to the bottom of the case.
The Local Squire
Due to the fact Miles now owns and rents out many properties in the village of Dangan he can be considered to be taking on the role of the village squire. This is a role which also featured in another book I read this week, June Wright’s So Bad a Death (1949). In that story the feudal system and the concept of squires is debunked and revealed to be rotten as typified in the novel’s principal victim, James Holland. Therefore I was interested to see what Dillon did with this in her story and I think by and large this novel puts forth the idea that the “old way” of doing things doesn’t have to be completely destroyed. It requires an able figure head and various social and economic reforms and revisions though. Miles quickly shows that he is the man for the job, being keen to do his best, partly because he feels he is obliged to, but also because he was ‘madly, despairingly in love with’ the place. Though it takes him a while to get over the feeling that he is ‘an interloper’. He also needs to see Dangan for what it is and to not view it through rose tinted spectacles if his plans for improvement are to succeed, as initially he sees Dangan as ‘a fairy village.’ In ways I hadn’t anticipated the issue of whether the squire system can be reformed is intertwined into the final solution of the case.
However, it is not just Miles who needs to change and develop but also the community at large. There are some disturbing moments when young marriageable woman are termed by men in the community (either fathers or romantic partners) in ways that remind you of how people usually talk about livestock. Captain Merlin is particularly mercenary when it comes to his daughter’s matrimony plans and Miles even suggests that he sees her as ‘saleable property.’ Furthermore, a man who is said to be look aged between 30 and 45 (though his exact age is never confirmed) is walking out with a 16yr old named Nora. He says of her that ‘she’s young yet, but by next year she’ll be ready for market.’ Apart from internally recoiling at this point, it did make me wonder how much of this could really be accounted for by the times it was written in and what purpose Dillon had including this particular sentiment. Therefore part of the reforming of the village and the way it is run is also concerned with how marriages and relationships are formed and I think the ending of the novel tries to suggest that companionate marriages will usurp mercenary ones.
The Ambiguity of Miles
Miles is an intriguing character. Seen in his poor and shabby beginning setting he doesn’t come across as a likeable person with one of his first comments being that his landlady is ‘an insult to her sex’ because of her yellow teeth, yet in the same breath he is able to justify his rotund physique. Yet I think this experience showed me that a character’s personality can be distorted by judging them on one comment. As in this particular case this comment is part of a wider acrimonious relationship. Furthermore, I think these negative traits in Miles were exacerbated by his environment and the rather difficult life he has had. When Miles gets to Dangan his caustic comments of others begin to decrease and he becomes more self-reflective, acknowledging the flaws he has:
‘The trouble was. Miles reflected, that what is attractive in a child is often the reverse in an adult. “Miles,” he said to himself as he sipped his tea, “you are going to be a horrible old man.”’
There are also more poignant moments such as when we find out about his painful upbringing and there are times when you feel for sympathy for him. Mr Barne says to him at the start that the property he is getting has ‘not much land – less than two hundred acres.’ The enormity of this is emphasised by the adjacent sentence: ‘Miles had once tried to have a window-box, but Mrs Doran had put a stop to it.’ I won’t say he is a perfect or infallible character, having some questionable or odd reactions to some of the female characters, but I think his more amiable side comes out when the inheritance gives him a chance to find vocational fulfilment. Conversely the defects in Reid’s character could be said to be reinforced by his business success.
Characterisation: Final Thoughts
Having now read all read of Dillon’s mystery novels I think the thing which struck me the most is that Dillon is not afraid to expose her characters’ fallibility. Moreover, I think the casts of characters she creates reminds me of the group found in the BBC comedy The Vicar of Dibley. In this TV series it is fair to say that the characters range from slightly odd to barking mad, yet the audience do not question the plausibility of it, as the characters are perfectly suited to the environment they are situated in and I think Dillon does the same thing here.
Whilst Glyn Daniel’s Welcome Death (1954) was obsessed with alibis, Sent to his Account is the opposite. It is very big on motive, yet there is little in the way of suspect alibis or physical clues in this case. The solution itself is good, yet I think it would have be more satisfying if it could have been attached to the earlier narrative and investigation. Due to this not being the case it mars the investigation. This is a hard book for me to rate. It was thematically interesting and I liked the setting. Dillon’s narrative style is engaging yet the detachment between the investigation and the solution undermines the reading experience, though this is only apparent once you get to the end of the book. The issue with the solution has unfortunately had a detrimental effect on my final rating.
My other Dillon reviews:
Death in the Quadrangle (1956)