There were quite a few factors which drew me into buying this book. One of which was definitely the intriguing title, which Martin Edwards tantalising threw out at the last Bodies from the Library conference, a book he also incidentally recommended. Fast forward to this year and it is hard to not be drawn in by the dust jacket of the Harper Collins reprint. The blurb too hints at its interesting wartime setting and inverted mystery style.
At the time of its original publication this book received a lot of positive reviews. The Times Literary Supplement talked of its ‘element of psychological fantasy,’ whilst commenting on how Henderson ‘pursues a grim little theme with perception and ingenuity. His manner is brief, deliberately undertones, and for the most part curiously effective.’ But perhaps Henderson’s biggest fan was Raymond Chandler no less, who loved the book, reading it multiple times. He said it was ‘one of the most fascinating books written in the last ten years’ and was upset at how few copies he felt it sold in America – ‘There is something wrong with the book business.’ A year later in his essay ‘The Simple Art of Murder,’ Chandler again singles the book out for praise – quite the honour! So why is Henderson and work so overlooked these days? One answer I think is probably his early death at 41, dying four years after the successful publication of this book. He had adapted the novel for the stage and was even working towards a film production prior to his death. Perhaps if he had lived a bit longer his might not have been forgotten so easily.
Martin Edwards’ is insightful as always in his introduction to this edition and it definitely seems to me like Henderson one way or another had a hard life, until the 1940s, where he seemed to meet more success. One thing which really interested me was how some of his own painful life events were grafted into the life of his fictional murderer, Mr Bowling and both he and his creation seem to have shared a similar pessimistic and bleak outlook on life, as evidenced in Henderson’s unpublished memoirs. Martin also includes in his introduction, comments Henderson made about his novel and it is intriguing to see how an author’s perceptions may be myopic to an extent, as I certainly think his impression that the book is full of humour to overset, ‘the sombre, brooding background,’ is optimistic to say the least. Whilst I agree with Martin that this book seems to have been influenced by the works of Francis Iles and C. S. Forester, I don’t think Henderson really matches Iles’ skill for dark humour and satire. Additionally I think he is also a bit ambitious in suggesting it to be a ‘religious novel,’ granted the murderer makes rambling comments about God, but I don’t think religion or faith as a theme is addressed directly. Hopefully not coming across as hyper-critical, as there are things which I really enjoyed about this book, but I think if a potential reader was relying on Henderson’s own words about the book, they may get the wrong impression.
As I said this is an inverted mystery so it is no spoiler to say that Mr Bowling is the story’s culprit, though I love the great opening sequence, which at once highlights the contradictory odd moods Mr Bowling experiences, as well as casually dropping in Bowling’s thought that ‘I’ll never kill a woman again!’ Before the story has even begun, Mr Bowling has already committed two murders, the first more of an opportunistic crime, whilst the second and the later ones are more premeditated. So to begin with the book starts by looking at these two crimes, intermixed with sections going back over his childhood and youth. You could say the book is trying to make some justifications for the way Mr Bowling acts, but I don’t think the narrative allows you to make such hasty judgements.
You won’t be surprised to hear me say this is a psychological crime novel and the tale does go into the Mr Bowling’s state of mind quite extensively, chronicling how it changes. Why does he commit the murders he commits? External factors are suggested, and in my opinion Mr Bowling does suffer from an external locus of control, but personally I would think the real problem is more internal. He is emotionally very jumpy and whilst his initial state of despair fuels his first crime, it seems with his later killings there is a need for reckless and dangerous behaviour, as his murders are not hugely well planned or worked out. It is early on suggested that Mr Bowling desires to be caught by the police so he can either be done with it all and be hanged or be catered for in prison for a spell. This idea flags up Mr Bowling’s issues concerning personal responsibility and strong sense of entitlement, but personally I don’t think Mr Bowling really wants to be caught or rather his desire to be arrested is predominantly passive. He does not actively highlight his criminality by staying near the body, admitting his guilt or even sending cryptic letters to the police. Instead he expects the police to figure out he did it and come and take him away. Perhaps there is a gaming or gambling element to it all, as there is definitely a strong desire in Mr Bowling to have a better life, yet he feels like society at large and specific individuals have kept him back and even when his life does begin to improve he still isn’t satisfied. During his killing spree he does question his actions, not morally, but more just why the heck is he doing what he is doing, even when there is no material advantage in doing so. It does get to the point where murder is committed on a whimsy. However I do wonder if the WW2 and Blitz background to the tale contributes to this sense of meaningless deaths, as Mr Bowling does once consider how many more senseless deaths are being committed on the battlefields. Perhaps attitudes to death at this time were coloured by their wartime surroundings.
If you need lots of shock, surprise and action then this book probably isn’t for you, as although there are quite a few deaths, the reader does become desensitised to them after a while – perhaps that was a deliberate effect? This really is a character study of an accidental murderer. There is the odd surprise here and then, but I don’t think the ending has the same kick as say Malice Aforethought or Trial and Error have. Yet I think the ending will certainly be perplexing to the reader, hopefully in a good way, as it was certainly not what I was expecting and in fact could be considered as a dark and ambiguous upending of the fairy tale happily ever after.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Book made into a play