Last month I reviewed and enjoyed immensely Wright’s So Bad a Death (1949), the last of her Maggie Bryne novels. This month I decided to try one of her non-Bryne novels. I found it interesting that although it was written in the 1950s, it was only published for the first time last year, having been rejected by her publishers at the time. Derham Groves writes an engaging and insightful introduction to the Dark Passage edition of the book, including the publisher’s, Hutchinson’s, readers’ comments. One reader said ‘there are very good features here, but the author… has in effect produced a rather stock-box novel of the whodunit house party variety,’ a comment I feel does an injustice to the book, which goes beyond this subgenre. Another reader said, ‘if the author had strewn less red herrings around, her mystery would have been less confused and in consequence improved.’ I don’t again think this is entirely fair. The final third of the book is a little more hectic in terms of its plot, taking on some elements from fugitive running from justice subgenre, but I don’t think I was particularly confused at any point. Finally another reader said that ‘the mechanics of this story follow the old lines of the ‘country house’ murder, where everyone is suspect and the final denouement highlights the most insignificant character.’ Wright does make use of this narrative arc but once more I think she does more than this and to be fair when I first read this comment I was wondering what was wrong with writing such a narrative anyways.
The story is set in northern Victoria, at Campbell’s Hill and predominantly takes place at an inn whose clientele are mostly duck shooters and is owned by Ellis Bryce but his sister Grace, does all the work. As the duck season is soon to commence, there is a wide assortment of guests. There is the stammering and shy Wilson, who is not keen on shooting, there is an American named Harris P. Jeffrey, regular guests Major Dougall, his wife and daughter, Adelaide, along with Athol Sefton who is bringing his nephew, Charles Carmichael and two last minute guests, a honeymooning couple. There are also Ellis’ grown up children, Shelagh (a trained nurse) and Jerry, who is bringing another apparently unsuitable girlfriend home to visit. This time she is a model named Margot Stainsbury, who just so happens to know Sefton and his nephew quite well. Like many a Golden Age detective novel victim, Sefton is a hugely unpopular man. He gave the Major seriously bad investment advice, Jerry’s girlfriend from the last duck season cheated on him with Sefton, Jeffrey seems to have some form of vendetta against him and even the sweet and innocent Adelaide has cause to dislike him when it dawns on her that he is not romantically interested in her. Unfortunately for her, her romances exist more in her head or on paper than in reality.
Yet what really makes the plot of this story move is the ridiculous situation Carmichael ends up in after his uncle is killed, as it seems he is the only one to believe that he was murdered. Sefton was after all being tormented by anonymous letters and phone calls prior to his death and was acting out of character. Other physical clues also point to this being murder. But both the local police and doctor, who are not the sharpest tools in the shed, stick stubbornly to accidental death. The other guests are happy to acquiesce in this belief, mostly out of fear of getting involved and refrain from volunteering information which could support Carmichael’s assertions. Carmichael’s investigations take a long time to bear fruit and it seems to take even longer for someone in authority to believe him. Yet there is also the increasing worry that for all his efforts he is in fact making a noose for his own neck…
Wright and Metafiction
An alternative title for this novel was The Textbook Detective Story and I felt this was quite apt for the style Wright employs in this book, as she frequently includes metafictional comments which joke around with the detective fiction genre. For example soon after Sefton’s murder someone says:
‘Do you know what all this reminds me of? One of those detective stories about an ill-assorted group weekending at a country house. I think everyone was about ripe for murder by the time Athol had finished last night.’
Stereotypical conventions of the genre are also mocked a little, such as when Ellis says near the end of the book:
‘Tell me – is it going to be like one of those books you review? After amassing a weight of evidence quite unknown to the hapless reader, the great detective stands up at a most fortuitous gathering of the suspects and points the accusing finger.’
There are also amusing moments when Carmichael ends up doing things which he usually lambasts in the detective fiction he reviewed for his uncle’s magazine. One such moment is when he says:
‘“In what had I but known- ” He broke off, horrified at the words that had slipped out involuntarily. He always panned mercilessly those emotional mystery stories whose writers belonged to what Mr Ogden Nash referred to as the H. I. B. K. school.’
The metafictional comments also make reference to the “rules” of Golden Age detective fiction. Two such instances are when Sefton says, ‘Oh no, I will not have someone confessing to the crime. It’s against all the rules,’ and ‘I flatly refuse to have the supernatural obtruding. There’s been enough breaking of the rules of the game as it is. Vengeful ghosts would be the ruddy limit.’ Overall I think Wright’s use of such referencing was well done. She doesn’t go over the top and it adds to the comedy of the piece effectively.
Bringing “Britain” to Australia
When reviewing, So Bad a Death, I mentioned how the victim of the novel tried to recreate an imagined British lifestyle in Australia and there are similar instances here, though those who try to do this in this book are not depicted as negatively as he is. Their attempts at holding onto what they deem as “British” is seen more as an emotional boost at best or self-deluding at its worst. For example in the opening of the book which talks about the area surrounding the inn, it is said that on a nearby hill a British expatriate ‘built on the rise a pseudo hunting-box… to ease his nostalgia for the grouse moors of his homeland by shooting the plentiful wildfowl.’ Conversely, the retired Major and his family are more in the self-deluded camp as despite their significant fall in circumstances they still act, especially the parents, as though nothing has changed since their time living in India:
‘Years of easy living and the rigid social code of Anglo-Indians had left Mrs Dougall incapable of adjusting herself to a new and cruder life. She clung to the old standards by building a protecting wall of memories of the halcyon Indian years between herself and the sordid realities of the present, behaving, speaking, thinking and even dressing precisely as she had done then. Being a strong minded woman, she succeeded in bolstering up the Major’s flagging morale, that he almost completely joined her in the happy self-deception.’
Wright is not excessively unkind about these individuals, but at the same time you don’t feel as though she endorses what they are doing and the way they live in a fantasy at times arguably detrimentally affects Adelaide’s ability to conduct a normal romantic relationship.
Ellis is a particularly interesting character in this book, though not always a prominent one, as on the one hand he is entertaining to listen to as he makes verbal rings around the others, yet on the other hand some of his behaviour is reproachable. When I began encountering him as a character, another character also sprang to mind, Jane Austen’s Mr Bennet, from Pride and Prejudice (1813). Like Mr Bennet, Ellis’ approach to life is to be the observer rather than the doer, finding amusement in other people’s follies, and they both have a similar off hand parenting style and they both make fun of their offspring. Yet despite his lack of emotional intelligence, such as responding inappropriately to Carmichael when he first announces his uncle is dead and remaining unfazed by his son’s accident, Ellis does know something of human nature. Throughout the story he offers Carmichael snippets of information about the other guests, which can be quite insightful. However, his lack of motivation and his inherent laziness mean that he never takes on a detecting role. This of course does not bother him in the slightest and nor does it really bother the reader, well me anyways.
The characterisation in this book is enjoyable, but in a different way to the other Wright novels I have read. It, along with the establishment of the setting is less rich and detailed, which is probably why it is much shorter than the Bryne novels. There is a wide range of female characters and I like how much they vary from one another, yet seem quite real and Shelagh was a particular favourite. I feel if Maggie Bryne suddenly entered into the story you can tell they would get fit quite well together. I think Wright also creates an interesting psychological situation where for various reasons characters do not want to back up the protagonist in believing foul play has occurred. This of course reminded me of an earlier story by Ethel Lina White, The Wheel Spins (1936), where a similar issue occurs. In the final section of the story there is definitely a fugitive on the run element, which was unexpected for me, yet I think on the whole I rather enjoyed it and it stopped the story from dragging on at the inn. The motivation for the crime is an amusing and interesting one, and fits well within the whole book. I came across an earlier variation of it in a novel by Alan Melville, which I can’t name for issues of spoilers for this book. I did guess the final twist, though only a few pages before it is revealed, which I didn’t mind, as on the one hand I got to guess the right answer, but on the other hand I didn’t guess it so soon that I got bored with the book. There are varying levels of comedy in this story, from overt jokes about detective fiction, to delightfully comic moments centred round human nature, such as when Ellis and Grace talk at cross purposes at the start of the novel.
In terms of getting emotionally involved in a book and in terms of depth of character, I think these two aspects are better done in Wright’s Maggie Bryne novels. However in terms of humour, setting, style and narrative interest this book is overall a great and entertaining read and is one I would recommend. I am interested in reading Wright’s three other mystery novels, though unfortunately they have not been reprinted recently so are not easy to get a hold of.
My fellow blogger JJ has also reviewed this book here.
See also: Murder in the Telephone Exchange (1948)