First of all thanks to Xavier, for not only recommending this book, but also finding me a dust jacket image for the title, as google images was not very forthcoming. I would class today’s read as a quasi-inverted mystery, having some elements of this subgenre, but at the same time using them in ways which do not neatly fit into the category. Yet of course it is this playfulness with the genre which made this a very enjoyable read.
Crime writer, Julian Drew narrates the first section of the story. He idly talks with his Aunt Rachel about how easy it would be to kill her, her death not unexpected due to her ill health and a while later she is indeed dead, leaving £500 to Julian and everything else to her niece Clare. Yet it is not her death we are interested in, with our focus being on Clare, her husband Geoffrey and their household, who are now living in Rachel’s home, Overton Lodge. As part of the household we have an old domineering housekeeper, Agnes Keenan, who seems to have it in for both Geoffrey and Julian, as well as a neighbour and newspaper astrologer Claudia Stone, who is forever in and out of the house. This is a far from happy household with Clare and Geoffrey increasingly becoming at logger heads with one another, especially when their affections seem to straying elsewhere. Julian’s narrative unsurprisingly concludes with a death…
I’ve not said too much about the plot, as I think it is one you can easily say too much about. All I will say is that the narrative after Julian’s, is shared by others, all of which bear a different point of view on what is going on. There is a lot to enjoy with this book. Julian who narrates most of the story is very good at his job, beginning with his wonderful opening line: ‘It was as she lay there in her old-fashioned bed, looking so frail and helpless, that I thought how easy it would be to finish off my Aunt Rachel.’ A line which of course makes one think of Richard Hull and the like. Being a crime writer Julian also includes some entertaining metafictional comments, with this one being my favourite as he reminds me of a trope I have seen so many times but never paused to think about:
‘It is, I believe, a tradition with a certain type of detective story that the discovery of the body, if made by a woman, should always be followed up by a wild shriek. Whether this is equally common in real life, I wouldn’t know; it certainly did not occur in the present instance.’
Thinking about my mystery reading in a general sense I have come to conclusion there really is a lot of female shrieking when it comes to finding a body. Something I’ve overlooked but now seems really obvious. Not that I am criticising these female characters per say, as not having found a dead body, thankfully, I can’t say how I would react myself.
Julian though is not the only well-drawn character, as I think Symonds is clever with how he has crafted the rest of his characters. They initially seem to conform to type, yet as the book progresses a more complex picture of them emerges. Clare is very much a case in point. When we first encounter her she is described as doll-like, empty headed and vacuous and her discussion of Julian’s novel fairly supports this impression:
Clare: ‘I saw some perfectly stinking reviews of your novels, and I knew at once that I should simply adore it.’
Julian: ‘And did you?’
Clare: ‘But of course! At least, I shall do as soon as I have read it. Unfortunately, though I made the most definite note to buy the book – what with one thing and another – you know how it is-’
Whilst I wouldn’t say she gets any more intelligent in the book, we do get to see more sides to her, particularly in the makeup of her personality and emotional world. It also helps that Symonds does have a great way with words, as this line for example, about Clare, really stayed with me: ‘she went along the passage, limp and apathetic as a rag doll and dragging her feet like an old woman.’
So all in all a good read. Deceptive narration, unexpected twists and nicely ironic ending that Francis Iles surely would have approved of. What’s not to love?
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Writer