Lawrence is an author I only came across for the first time last year, but I have returned to her work quite a bit, with mixed reading results. However she did not write much mystery fiction so I have rapidly got to my penultimate Lawrence read, which is today’s review. The only other one I have not read is A Time To Die (1945). I know some readers don’t enjoy reading a lot of one author too close together, but I sometimes find it helpful, as I can remember more easily the previous reads and decide how the writing might be changing – for better or for worse. Out of what I have read, her first novel, Blood Upon the Snow (1944) is my favourite and is the one I would recommend people trying first.
This story starts with a journey, with various people making their way to the home of Hurst Herald, though the character we focus on, in particular, is Regan Carr. She has been invited their by Hurst to come and stay, since her mother has died. However on arrival no one seems to have been aware she was coming and more importantly Regan is too late; Hurst had died the night before due to his heart. This of course leaves Regan in a very awkward position with Hurst’s wife and in-laws, as well as Hurst’s two brothers. Everyone, barring the housekeeper are polite, but underneath Regan is quick to see that in the case of May, Hurst’s widow, this kindness is only skin deep and she is also quick to see the bitterness and tensions within the household: between Hurst’s blood relatives and his married ones.
With such an atmosphere you know something bad is bound to happen. But when? And what will this bad thing turn out to be? That is the focus of the rest of the book. Fray, one of Hurst’s brothers, gets Regan involved in going through all of Hurst’s diaries and papers and it eventually transpires that Fray is wanting Regan to remember something from her last time at the house when she was 6. Something terrible, terrible enough that Hurst might have given his life for it. The crimes of this book are definitely those of the past. Yet all of this unfolds over a number of days with Regan having to contend with the various difficult and bizarre householders. The pavilion, as mentioned in the title, is an eerie and sinister figure in the background of the book, with its own story to tell. But will Regan be able to remember the information which will unlock the mystery? And will she remember before someone prevents her from doing so permanently?
As I said earlier, I have had a mixed experience with my Lawrence reading and unfortunately this is not one of the better ones. Having read quite a few now I think this is because Lawrence tried out a lot of different narrative types, even if they all have a domestic suspense leaning, and as a consequence this experimenting didn’t lead to success every time. Yet because her output was so small this somewhat skewers the quality of her body of work overall. Perhaps if she had been as prolific as Christie or even Sayers she might have had her experiments and then begun to hit her stride, as she does have a number of writing strengths.
One such strength is her ability to create an atmosphere, even from the smallest of phrases. She does not have to over ladle adjectives in order to put a chill down your spine. I also like her handling of narrative perspective, as in this book we view the Hurst household initially from the viewpoint of the servants, which is quite revealing. She is also a dab hand at creating an interesting character. May, our family matriarch, is a very intricate and complex personality. She is adept at being obstructive whilst being outwardly considerate and the reader will spend a lot of the book trying to decide how much of a baddy she is. Then again I have always felt that Lawrence is strong at writing female characters and at using her writing to subtly consider the plight of women at the time – financially and socially. This is most strongly revealed in Death of a Doll (1947), which is set within an all-women’s hostel, but it is also present in this work. Without a nest egg or a financially secure family, women are shown to be in a precarious state, whether they are a young orphan like Regan or like two of the Hurst servants, who are two elderly servants in their 60s, but who have to pretend they are much younger in order to get work which puts a roof over their head, a roof they are always fearful will be taken away from them. Interestingly whilst the reader might feel sympathy for these two sisters in particular, this vulnerability is not necessarily treated with much sympathy by the other more secure characters.
I think people looking for a conventional mystery will be disappointed with this book, after all the deaths in this book all take place off page. The pace is fairly slow, which may be in keeping with the nature of the plot and even be more naturalistic, but eventually it becomes hard to maintain interest, the pace is that slow. There are a lot of good elements in this plot but they do become submerged beneath the padding and slow pace. Furthermore, although I have said Lawrence is good at writing female characters, Regan is the exception, as she increasingly lacks presence. Fray becomes the driving force of the book, keeping his thoughts to himself, whilst Regan becomes fainter and fainter in the story, being in the middle of things but making much less impression. The ending, with the final showdown between Fray and an unnamed other person, is well-crafted though. The culprit is not identified by name but as the narrative reveals each piece of the solution, the name becomes more inferable until it is confirmed by the person who does not come into dinner. This is a moving way to end a book, but unfortunately my interest levels had somewhat dissipated so I didn’t get as much from it. So overall I am a little frustrated with this story. There is a really good story in there but it just doesn’t seem to manage to make its way out to the reader.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Published under more than one title
Duet of Death (1949)