Unusually for me I bought this book primarily because of its unusual title. Then again Campbell had quite a thing for giving her works peculiar titles, such as Water Weed (1929) and The Cockroach Sings (1946). It’s almost a shame that such titles didn’t help these books remain in the collective memory. Alice Campbell is a very apt author for the Friday’s Forgotten Book meme. It will come as no surprise that I couldn’t find another review of today’s read online. In general I think Campbell has not benefitted from the current return to vintage crime fiction. This is not my first encounter with this author though as I read her novel Spiderweb (1930) a while ago, but found it only to be a so-so read. However the synopsis for today’s book sounded rather intriguing and the price was right so I decided to give her another go, a decision I am glad I made.
This is a WW2 set story, a setting that is asserted in the opening lines in the form of bombs, which have had a heavy impact a place of business. But death actually comes from a very different source… ‘It was at ten-thirty that Lady Hyacinth made her historic swoop upon her husband’s business premises in the city. If she had not chosen that particular May morning – well, Peter Gloam might still be alive.’ Gloam is Hyacinth’s husband and she is determined to wheedle more money out of him for her latest scheme to buy up antiques to then sell in America for a considerable profit. Surprisingly Gloam puts his foot down and refuses. After all his very business premises, an import business at that, is barely standing. Stray words heard outside the office also suggest a question of legality. Whilst the building continues to disintegrate the argument becomes heated, so much so that Hyacinth locks the door. Further noises urge Wren Dancey (Gloam’s secretary), Sam Molesey (Gloam’s book keeper), Captain Ronald Warre (Gloam’s nephew) and Hyacinth’s two cousins Joanna Fripp and Cyril Brockett to break in. The safe is empty, Gloam is dead of a stroke, yet Hyacinth is far from the grieving widow. Instead she enlists everyone’s help to pack all of her antiques to be sent to a cottage. Yet even during this period further death follows – a cook whose knowledge is squashed by a pair of murderous hands, a lorry driver who is killed outside his van and a local policeman who also meets a similar fate.
However, this knowledge is more slowly revealed to the characters themselves, who are situated at the cottage. Wren is supposed to be there by herself minding the antiques until Hyacinth, (who broke her leg in a bombing raid), can arrive, yet under the most suspicious of excuses both Joanna and Cyril also turn up. It doesn’t take the most astute reader to know that their reasons are far from charitable. It seems someone is keen to unearth some unmentioned wealthy object from the hoard, someone who is prepared to kill… Muddying the waters of course are others who are also on the lookout for easy money. Wren is unsure who to trust as the clues incriminate those closest to her, yet this might be preferable to the police considering her a prime suspect…
This is a hard story to summarise in some ways, as the initial setup, which is a good one, is quite intricately laid. So apologies for having to read a little more in that section than usual.
Whilst the original blurb for this title categorises this as a detective story, (and in fairness to them there is a police investigation in the plot), I would label it as more of a thriller in the Ethel Lina White mode – which is no insult, as regular readers will know. The ending especially falls into this category, but I also feel that the clues are used to shock the reader more than anything else. The button and the cat in particular meet this requirement. For readers who enjoy a high body count then this book will suit as in 38 pages there are four deaths and the finale sees a few more to boot. The theme of a serial killer understandably crops up and initially thoughts wander to a solider or tradesman who has gone unhinged. Of course we know better that the killer is much closer to home. Yet “home” is still a large territory, especially from Wren’s point of view and the reader is made to feel a strong sense of jeopardy but without knowing its source.
When it comes to the characterisation I found the cast this time around to be much stronger than in my last read. The awfulness of the cousins is wonderfully done, with Joanna’s greediness and self-interest, lacking any self-awareness of how appalling her behaviour is. Wren’s inability to escape these two and others adds a wry note of humour to the piece. The romance angle is well-executed, as none of the men in Wren’s life are free of suspicion and her no nonsense attitude towards Ronald is heart-warming in contrast to the simpering emotions heroines usually indulge in. One of my favourite lines from the book has to be:
‘As for faintly imagining she was the attraction – well, she wasn’t that kind of poor simp. Ronald liked her, he had a wholesome respect for her, but – she acted on him like an astringent. No man gets a thrill out of that…’
I also like the emotional complexity within Wren when she has to share her bed with Ronald: ‘Body tensed, Wren lay down. Half fearful an arm was going to steal round her; mortified when it remained still.’ Of course one cannot review this book and ignore Lady Hyacinth as although she features only at the start and the end, her minimal entrances are powerful. She has a meanness which rips away the masquerades of the others and suffice to say there is no character left unaffected by her.
So all in all a thrilling read, (in the best sense) and a definite improvement on the last book I read by Campbell. Fortunately there are some copies of this book for under £10, so you can find out for yourself how good it is.