The Black Rustle (1943) by Constance and Gwenyth Little

Whilst this book has the familiar trope of containing a weekend party at a country abode, comprised of relatives and family friends, the Littles still provide their own wonderfully bizarre twists. Of course there is lots of tension and bitterness between the different relations, which are only kept simmering barely underneath the surface by Bruce Collyer’s threat to ban them from coming back to the house if they descend into full on rowing. But is this the wisest solution? Randell says it all when he says that ‘the place is all right – it’s the people who mess it up. When a bunch of relatives insist on hobnobbing every weekend it’s apt to be dangerous.’ This seems to be the case as only two days in and our narrator, Marina Hays makes an unpleasant discovery in the swimming pool late one night. Our victim is a highly unexpected one and their death is achieved in an astonishing and swift manner, though I think it is the second death in the book which stays with me, which is unexpectedly chilling. As family friend, Hays has a more outside point of view, though she soon gets stuck into snooping and sleuthing, the dots all finally joining up once she has had a few too many drinks. Missing DIY tools, Sonny’s planned surprise, unexpected engagements, disappearing ornaments, an Edgar Allan Poe clue and the rumour of a ghost all enter into the mix.

Overall Thoughts

I am aware that Mercury editions of mysteries are in the main abridged and shortened versions, yet when looking in the inside cover of my copy it said it had not been cut. I am assuming that cut is being used synonymously with the word abridged, yet given the copy is only 120 odd pages long, (with two columns of text per page), I still think it must have been shortened. Why am I boring you with all of this? Well I think my final rating has been affected by this factor. All the usual positives of a Littles book are here, but I think the abridgement has marred their usual brightness – especially the ending where the trap to catch the killer is a bit ham fisted. The ending is also a little bewildering, taking until chapter two for me to figure out the name of the narrator and also how everyone is related to one another.

However let’s move on to the positives, as I think if you can find a non-Mercury copy of this book, you’ll probably have a stronger read. There is a great deal of social comedy to be had. First of all there is the unusual romance thread running through the book between Marina and Bruce, where the overt joking around their supposed courting, leaves the characters and readers alike unsure whether it is serious or all baloney. Bruce is no atypical romantic lead – a DIY fiend whose first wife left him due to his obsessive hobby. It is not surprising that Marina says that ‘I’m darned if I’m going to compete with a porch.’ It also probably doesn’t help that he can never get her name right.

The second strand of the social comedy in this book can be found in the bickering relations, especially in the character of Aunt Delia, who is an ace at provoking and ruling others. She is hilarious to listen to, though I imagine very hard to live with. One of my favourite lines from her is: ‘As for marrying, I’ve done it once, but I like variety. I’ve decided, this time, to take up bridge, instead – because you can’t do both successfully.’ She also rebuts Gert’s nauseating notion that a woman ‘ought to forget her own interests and do like her husband wants,’ with the reply that any such woman would drive a man insane and that ‘she ought to keep [her thoughts] locked in a closet when they’re as moth-eaten as all that.’ Like this comment, I think the motivation behind the murders is quite modern, especially in its details, and it is not one I have come across before, though I think it ties in with the chilling/non-cosy undertones this comic crime novel has. A final favourite comic line from this book, comes when Gert has slapped a policeman. Understandably the man asks his superior if he should have to put up with this sort of behaviour, to which his boss replies: ‘not necessarily, Next time you’d better duck.’ Sound advice!

So yes this has been a slightly odd review, as I think the rating would have been higher if I had had the full version, so my own sound advice is to try that one.

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Colour in Title

You can read JJ’s thoughts this book here.

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12 comments

    • The Littles are probably classed as cosy writers as in the main they wrote very comic stories. However I think some of their works do have a more darker and more unsettling aspect to them, such as the second death in this book. Personally I am not a huge fan of term cosy, as I think a lot of vintage writers deemed to be cosy actually wrote much more unsettling stuff. But yes the Littles are definitely worth a try, if you can track down a copy or two.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I’d weigh in to say that it’s not cosy in the sense that the word has come to mean — what Noah would call Professional Mysteries, in the sense that a crime causes a mild disruption in the Force and then everything is fine. The Littles were big on a challenging of the social status quo — finding ways to make the normal order of things (lodging houses, weekend gatherings, passing friendships, anything with a air of transience about it) into something quite vibrant with threat and malice.

      There’s little to know explicit violence, but there’s a determination to find a way to make the heroine (they’re virtually always heroines) question the things around them they’ve previously not paid much attention to — that sort of bleeding through in the backgournd of the idead that Something Is Not Right. It stops short of full psychological terror, but there’s a distinct stir of menace that moves these books beyond a simple “cosy” pigeon-holing, I’d say.

      Others, though, may disagree…

      Liked by 2 people

  1. This was the first book I read by the Littles – and I liked it enough to try another of their offerings. Having read two of their novels, it strikes me that their heroines are quite similar: independent, and sassy-mouthed. I can’t quite recall if I found the puzzle in either novel especially gripping though.

    Liked by 1 person

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