Back in February I experienced the work of Edwin Greenwood for the first time with The Deadly Dowager (1934), a novel I hugely loved, so I was pleased that I had tracked down one of his other novels. However, this anticipation rapidly disintegrated as I delved into the book. Those of a sensitive or nervous disposition, may not wish to continue reading. The only book I’ve read where I think a bucket for the nauseous should be provided…
The plot to this book is a little long winded so I’ll try my best to keep it as brief as possible. The first 40-50 pages unveil a series of interrelated characters. We have the WW1 widow who still believes her husband will turn up and we have the Vercelli de Rinzots, an aristocratic family who have fallen upon hard times. Yet the twin daughters of the family are determined to improve their lots through marrying for money and lots of it. This is not good news for one of their impoverished and already married suitors… if only their drunk older wife would die or at the very least agree to a divorce. You can kind of see where this is going…
Now you might be thinking, “Well Kate I read that synopsis and my stomach is feeling far from queasy. Are you sure you’ve got the right book?” I only wish I had got the wrong book! When reading this story I was reminded of Dorothy L. Sayers’ comments on Berkeley’s Panic Party (1934):
‘Sloppy sentiment is not wanted, on a desert island or anywhere else; but there is a point at which ruthless realism becomes not merely too unpleasant for popularity, but a little too bad for belief.’
And I think Greenwood’s tale has this problem in stereo. Unlike in The Deadly Dowager which certainly has its share of less than angelic characters, Greenwood’s cast of characters in this story, are not only unpleasant, but they are grotesque and nauseating. The character this is hugely embodied in is poor Mr Tongstein. I say poor, because boy does he suffer from some of the worst racial caricaturing that I have ever seen. Ignoring the hackneyed dialect, the poor man is physically a monster and due to a childhood injury always has to walk like a crab. A creepy personality prevents any serious sympathy though, but his worst crime against pleasant reading is his eating habits. Never have I read such obscene dietary peculiarities. Live trout and slugs is all I have to say on the matter. Suffice to say I made a point of skipping over future dinner scenes. Not sure my stomach could take it. It reminded me of the time I got stuck in a taxi with a child who insisted on regaling me with the different types of insects they had eaten.
Attitudes towards women, as well as the behaviour of some of the female characters hardly lifted the book out of such pits either. Yet the insanity of the character attitudes made me feel like I had fallen down the rabbit hole and whacked my head on landing. The perhaps delusional war widow is the sanest one there, which is saying something! When making notes for this review I initially noted that the opening structure had a grotesque Dickensian effect, yet I think to be wholly accurate and encompass the whole of the novel I would have to amend this epitaph: It is a combination of a Dickens novel with Midsummer Night’s Dream, delivered in a nightmarish and grotesque fashion. Not a sentence I thought I would ever need to write! There is a slightly less hellish middle section when the police investigation gets underway, but the police have a minimal presence in this book and the madness soon returns.
Whilst Greenwood’s humour was pitch perfect in The Deadly Dowager, it very much fell flat in this book. One of the twists at the end was forced into the novel and was one I had seen coming from very early on. A further fault to add to the list is ability this novel had to also bore me incredibly and was definitely 80 pages too long, though if it had never been written at all it would have been no great shame. It only leaves me to say that I am deeply puzzled how the writer of The Deadly Dowager could produce such an unpleasant and dull book. So it seems I have taken a second bullet in a row on the behalf of my readers. Definitely in need of a comfort read after this one.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Title contains two words beginning with the same letter.