Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Tree
Source: Review Copy (British Library)
My first experience with Rolls’ was not the best, but I am definitely glad that I decided to give him another go. The plot of Family Matters showcases Rolls’ talents as a writer much more effectively than Scarweather (1934). The majority of the action of this book takes place in the bizarrely yet wonderfully named Shufflecester. From the bird’s or rather plane’s eye view this town may seem rather ordinary and not very remarkable. Yet over the course of several months this is soon set to change. The story centres on the not so happy household of Robert Arthur Kewdingham, who lives with his wife Bertha, his son Michael and his father. Money is fairly tight for them after Robert was made redundant. The situation is made worse by the fact that Robert is not the easiest person to live with. He is a hypochondriac who frequently administers homemade remedies to himself. His hobbies and political interests take up most of his time and his house. He believes providence will right everything in the finance department and spends more time developing his mystical theories and telling all and sundry about his mystical experiences, much to his wife’s embarrassment. It doesn’t help that some people, in particular Pamela Chaddlewick, (who quite frankly does get on your wick as the book progresses), rather egg him on, in order to spite Bertha and to cause her to lose her temper. Marital discord unsurprisingly ensues.
Bertha leads a rather lonely existence, though her days are sometimes brightened by the visit of the local doctor, Wilson Bagge, who also sees Robert professionally. Our introduction to him immediately rings mystery fan alarm bells, as he is a widowed doctor and there are rumours that he caused the early demise of his wife. He also has his own dispensary and is showing a great deal of interest in Bertha. Since this book is more in the Iles Francis’ vein, reader suspicions are confirmed to an extent – we know that he likes to use his patients as unwitting guinea pigs, getting them to try new and not so safe medicinal concoctions.
Bertha also garners interest from her husband’s cousin, John Harrigall, an interest which soon fuels jealousy on Robert’s part. As the novel progresses events come to pass that seemingly force or tempt several characters into plotting Robert’s demise. Poison is the weapon of choice. Yet as this story’s shows poisoning is a lot harder than it looks. This is a deceptive novel in that we the readers are given so much more knowledge than the characters themselves, but like them are still shocked and surprised by how events ultimately turn out.
A couple of issues I had with Scarweather were with its pacing and its’ too obvious solution. Both of these issues thankfully are not present in this earlier novel. There is a lot of narrative threads, character developments and surprises to keep the reader occupied and I think Rolls’ creates much more mystery over where the story is going and how it will end.
Moreover, because these two problems weren’t visible I was more able to appreciate Rolls’ enjoyable writing style which is filled with well-crafted phrases that often reveal something of the characters. One of my favourite examples is when Pamela Chaddlewick is causing mischief as usual and Bertha becomes determined that she will not be ‘humiliated by a little fluffy puppet.’ There is also an interesting description of Dr Wilson Bagge where it is said that, ‘when you saw the quick dancing flash in his eyes, the sudden electric flicker of something wild and incalculable, something active though controlled, you wondered if he was altogether trustworthy.’
I enjoyed how this novel unfolds over a long time period, as it shows how small acts of spite and malice snowball into much bigger acts, meaning that a domestic drama ultimately becomes a criminal one. Rolls’ writing style lends itself to a crime novel which focuses predominately on character psychology, as we are able to see what small and often happenchance factors go into someone deciding to kill someone else. He also creates an effective atmosphere of moral ambiguity, as he shifts reader sympathies from one character to another. The ending as well as being full of surprises, interested me for its unsettling nature, leaving the reader with a few tantalising questions.
Bertha, who is half French and possibly also half Canadian (her father came from Quebec), was a character who interested me a lot, in how she develops as a character, but also with how the other characters perceive. Due to her “foreigner” status in the community and the fragmentation of her mind, as it gets harder and harder to live with Robert, it was hard not to think of fiction’s probably most famous Bertha, from Jane Eyre (who is also the focus of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea). Phrases such as ‘you will drive me mad’ and ‘you have to be treated like a child’ added to this parallel, with both women’s marriages being far from ideal and their foreign statuses often used being against them. At times Rolls’ gives us access to Bertha’s thoughts and I noticed that her thoughts of poisoning her husband are often given in a fragmented manner, which could be interpreted as a form of madness:
‘poison – poison – poison. The word kept on drumming deeply in her mind like the beat of the bass in a fugue; or like the pulse, the rhythm of some infernal engine. Poison – poison – poison.’
Equally, whilst Rolls’ Bertha is not locked in a tower like Bronte’s is, her home does become a form of prison to her, as she describes it as a ‘cage.’ Reading Rolls’ novel it is not surprising that Bertha is under a great deal of strain having to work around or confront Robert’s increasingly delusional ideas. Bertha explains to John how having to live in a world of illusion is hard, saying that: ‘I want to get away from all this damnable pretence. It is choking me. I do want something real.’ I’m not saying Rolls’ created his Bertha in light of Bronte’s, but it was an interesting parallel for me nonetheless, due to the similarities and connections.
So if you are thinking of trying Anthony Rolls’ work I would definitely recommend you start with this one. Fans of Iles Francis’ and C. S. Forrester’s work will find a similar enjoyable and ironic style in this story. And if you are still not convinced then Dorothy L Sayers herself no less gave this book the thumbs up saying that it:
‘exploited to the full this well-known tendency of families to expunge their less desirable members and has produced one of the best books of its kind that have appeared for some time.’