The Black Iris (1953) by Conyth Little

When buying this book, on my latest trip to Barter Books, I thought Conyth Little was a new author to me. But while I was reading it I did get the feeling that its style reminded me of someone else had read before, in particular Constance and Gwenyth Little. Given the identical surnames it therefore didn’t hugely surprise me when I further googled the book and found that this indeed with written by the Littles. The fact that Conyth amalgamates the names of Constance and Gwenyth only dawned on me much later.

This story is truly deserving of the epitaph of: Book where you honestly don’t know what is going to happen next, such is the zaniness and unusualness of the plot. It all begins with Richard Balron and his mother having their usual dinner badinage, both comically being rather annoyed with one another: Richard disliking his mother’s tendency to borrow his car, whilst his mother wishes he would leave home and get married, (leaving the nice convertible of course). As to who he should marry it comes down to two women: Madge and Ada Terry. It is the latter which Richard’s mother is so keen on, as like Richard she is a potential legatee in Aunt Ivy and Aunt Violet’s wills. The two sisters do not get on, though it is only late one night that Richard finds out how much they hate each other. It seems that they cannot agree on how their joint inherited wealth should be passed on, one favouring Richard, the other favouring Ada. So therefore their solution is Russian roulette, which they have been doing once month for a year. Understandably alarmed Richard tries to think of a temporary way to ensure a ceasefire, eventually deciding to cook up a fake engagement with Ada to cause a truce. Of course events get out of control, with characters going beyond what they thought they were going to do and into the midst of all of this enters murder, amongst many more sinister goings on. There is a lot more I could say about the plot, given how event filled it is, but I think it’s best to let you find out what all these unusual goings on are for yourselves.

Overall Thoughts

I really do think this novel shows the Littles working at their best. The comedy perfection of Richard Balron and his mother is hard to beat and not something which crops up a whole lot in vintage mystery fiction. There are of course mother/son pairings which show the latter very much under the thumb of the former, but there are not many examples of the two halves comically battling it out like these two do. The mother’s sass really is a joy to read. In fact I would say such a pairing is much more visible in vintage comedy films than mystery fiction from the time – though happy to be proved wrong of course. Elsewhere in the book the comedy and irony, which run throughout is delightful to read and the zany nature of the fictional world we read about is balanced and doesn’t over reach itself. The style and tone of the overall book also gave me a slight reminder of the film, Arsenic and Old Lace and like a few reads I have had this year, this book is definitely deserving of being adapted, as the central characters are ones which I think would be captivating on the big or little screen. The pace and level of maintained surprise is strong throughout and my only criticism of the book is the ending, which although has fitting irony, is too abrupt for my liking. However this issue shouldn’t deter anyone from tracking down this book and giving it a go. Suitable for fans or newbies to the Little oeuvre. Prices vary and the most copies seem to be available on Abe books. So Go! Go! Go! What are you waiting for?

Rating: 4.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Mask

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