Source: Review Copy (Verse Chorus Press)
Ever since I tried her first novel, Murder in the Telephone Exchange (1948), I have loved June Wright’s work. She is a mystery writer who brilliantly evokes her Australian background in her stories and frequently writes back to British culture and fiction. My enjoyment of her work continued with So Bad a Death (1949) and Duck Season Death (2015) and all three of these were reprinted by the Verse Chorus Press. I am so glad they are continuing to reprint the rest of her output, with today’s read being the latest one. Wendy Lewis, who has adapted this story for the stage writes the introduction and I would say, having done the complete opposite that you would be recommended to read this section after reading the novel. It doesn’t reveal major spoilers, but I have a feeling that quite a few readers may still feel they know a little too much going into the book. However, I am safe in saying that Lewis sums up this tale well as an ‘atmospheric psychological thriller about doubt, madness and the burden of responsibility.’
The actions takes place on the top of a peninsula near Melbourne, in and around the summer home of Dr Katherine and Dr Kingsley Waring, which is on the edge of a cliff, prone to high winds and bad rainy weather. Suffice to say this is never a safe option when you’re in a murder mystery novel. Other guests include Kingsley’s sister and husband, the two nurses that work alongside the Waring doctors, Dr Larry Gair, a surgeon, Michael, the Waring’s son and Dr Marsh Mowbray, who has worked under Katherine and is going to go to England in a few days. Katherine suggests coming to her home in order to get some rest before the trip, yet unsurprisingly her stay is far from restful. Within a short space of time Marsh is confronted with two suspicious deaths, both of which leave her looking at her mentor, Katherine, in a new more sinister light. Marsh’s conflicting thoughts are exacerbated by the way those around her are determined to blacken Katherine’s name, eager to believe the absolute worst and exploit the subsequent confusion for their own gain. As the tension mounts and Marsh’s lines of support disappear, the truth finally emerges, but will she left alive to tell the tale?
In a nutshell I would say that Wright continues the high standards of her previous books. Not only does she get it right in terms of readability and gripping reader attention, but she also delivers on her authentic setting and depiction of the perceived gender roles of the time and the friction these caused. This is definitely seen in the way the male characters talk about and talk to the female medical professionals, presuming they are too inexperienced, incapable or unfeminine. You really do feel like Marsh and Katherine are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they want male characters to treat them nicely they have to put up with sexist jibes or if they refute or rebut the jibes they then have to accept being lonely and being seen to be inhuman. I think this common problem is one of the many things that binds Marsh to her mentor and one of the reasons she is loath to believe she is capable of committing acts of violence. This is definitely a book which I wish Dorothy L Sayers had read and commented on, as this story feels like a descendent of Gaudy Night (1935) in how it deals with gender. However I think Wright poses a much more complex and fraught version of the romance subplot and the result is pleasingly unorthodox, though again the difficulties Marsh faces in this area are similar to those faced by Sayers’ Harriet Vane.
In terms of subgenre/style I would say this is a combination of a country house mystery, with a medical milieu, wrapped up in a psychological thriller formula, which is showcased well within the Waring household where underlying tensions are present upstairs and down. Marsh makes for an interesting amateur sleuth. This is not a role she relishes, but neither does she spend half the book whinging about it. It is not a role other characters appreciate in her either, acting in a very hostile manner towards her questions. The limited time scale she faces also adds to the tension of the investigation she is trying to conduct. In So Bad a Death, there are hues of darkness, which pervade beneath respectable surfaces, yet I would say in today’s read that the levels of darkness are far higher. Human nature does not have its finest hour in this tale, in particular the way hero worship can become devastatingly warped. Reader sympathy is doled out in very small amounts. But at the same time you are not repulsed by the characters you are reading about. It is a very unusual experience, though not a bad one.
Like Alan Melville I would say that Wright is capable of producing starkly different styles within her mystery fiction, though there are some common themes between her books. Today’s read makes a change from the other reprints in that it shows Wright exploring the psychological thriller. Normally I am a not a huge fan of this genre, but there are some exceptions, such as Ethel Lina White and Wright is certainly added to this exceptions list, as she writes in this style really well, keeping you engaged in the story and trying to work out who is behind all the suspicious events. The solution for this tale is brilliant, being surprisingly intricate and complex, bound by very difficult human emotions, which creates a great deal of drama and poignancy at the denouement of the book. Wright is, dare I say it, Christie-sque in the way she conceals the truth from the reader in plain sight and I think that is one of the reasons why she is good within this mystery subgenre. As my final rating shows this is a book I hugely enjoyed and would definitely recommend. I can’t wait for the next reprint to be released!
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): During a Weather Event