Source: British Library Crime Classics (Review Copy)
Vintage Scavenger Hunt Item: Blue Object
Rolls was the penname of C. E. Vulliamy, (the unusual surname arising due to him having an ancestor who was a Swiss clockmaker) and he certainly put his career in archaeology to good use in his crime fiction writing. Rolls published his crime fiction in two periods. The first of these periods was in the 1930s, producing four crime fiction novels between 1932 and 1934, with Scarweather (1934) being the last from this period and in his introduction to the British Library crime classics edition of this story, Martin Edwards suggests that Frances Iles was an influence. Rolls’ second period of writing crime fiction was between 1952 and 1963, where he wrote a further six novels, though published under his real name. Out of these 10 books it is said that The Vicar’s Experiments (1932) is his most well-known and it is hard to avoid comparing it to Malice Aforethought (1931), as the experiments in question are the vicar’s attempts in murder.
The story takes place over 15 years and is written in retrospect by John Farringdale. He has two main friends at university; his cousin Eric Tallard Foster and Frederick Ellingham, who is a genius in the field of chemistry, is a ‘gifted musician,’ ‘not incapable of being sardonic’ and Farringdale says of him that he has ‘never known any man with a wider range of interests and of real attainment. He had a faculty for acquiring rapidly, not the rudiments alone, but the most reliable and intimate knowledge of any science or study.’ No prizes for guessing what role he is going to have in this story…
Foster although studying medicine is also interested in archaeology and strikes up a friendship with Professor Tolgen Reisby, who lives at Scarweather, an isolated coastal area. Foster also quickly develops a friendship with Reisby’s much younger wife, Hilda, and the reader is not surprised when Farringdale becomes concerned at how close they are becoming. Tragedy strikes in July 1914 when Foster disappears during a visit to Reisby. The police are satisfied it is an accident, that Foster drowned when going for a swim in the middle of the night. Ellingham though is far from sanguine about this theory, especially considering the various suspicious things he knows about Reisby. Yet little can be done as WW1 begins and both Ellingham and Farringdale are called up. However, this does not mean Ellingham has forgotten his suspicions about Foster’s disappearance and over the years further hints as to what he is thinking are given and we also see how other characters in the drama change over time, not always for the better. Further disappearances also add to the mystery.
Rolls adopts a more unusual structure in his mystery novel. The book also focuses more on the consequences of committing a crime than the uncovering of one. These are bold choices, which may not appeal to everyone, though it was refreshing to see a less than conventional narrative structure employed. Yet what lets it down is the length of the novel in proportion to the story content. It did need shortening, especially given the ease by which the reader can solve the mystery early on. The longitudinal aspect of the novel did give the case a realistic quality, the way an event can seem suspicious or mysterious at the time but is not acted on due to insufficient evidence, yet still lingers on in people’s minds over time. However, this realism did not affect the pacing of the story so a shorter time frame may have been better.
Unsurprisingly Rolls recreates the archaeological milieu well and it does have an interesting role in the central mystery, though it would have been better if its role had been a little more hidden in the story. He also seems to have a lot of fun portraying his archaeological characters humorously. Ellingham is a sleuth in the Holmes mould, though he lacks the witty deductions of the Baker Street detective. Ellingham is rather taciturn in his investigative work, though interestingly his actions do raise some ethical questions, with then being rather high handed at times, especially at the denouement of the novel. Farringdale makes a good narrator on the whole, though ironically for a barrister he doesn’t really show much of a legal mind. He is perhaps a little too conscious of his narrating role, but not to an annoying extent. It did amuse me when he writes the fairly snobbish line that ‘it has always been my belief, that only intelligent people know how to enjoy themselves.’ An unexpected but pleasing aspect of the book’s characterisation was in the social milieu of Scarweather, as it was somewhat reminiscent of the casts of characters Jane Austen created, especially with the local magistrate Macwardle and his two middle aged unmarried daughters. I would have liked this aspect of the book to have been gone into in more detail than it was.
Although this was rather a slow burner of a novel I have not written Rolls off, as the British Library are reprinting another of his works in March, from his first crime writing period, Family Matters (1933) and I have read good things about it, suggesting that it is a stronger work.
N. B. I didn’t include the original cover for Scarweather due to the spoilers it gives away. This is something that Martin Edwards said Dorothy L Sayers remarked upon when she reviewed it.