Conyth Little, a favourite Australian writing duo of mine, may work with a small palette when it comes to casts of characters, plot events and settings, yet I find in this book they are once more able to create a great deal of variation and nuance.
The book begins with a wedding between nurse Miriel Mason and Ian Ross; the nephew of one of her patients. Yet theirs is no fairy tale wedding with all the bells and whistles. Instead it is a quick city hall affair with no family, after a mere 5 days of knowing each other. Ian only has a short amount of leave left from the army, and despite having wealthy relations, he himself is not that well off. This all leads to the pair spending their honeymoon at his Aunt Violet’s house. He imagines they will have the place to themselves as his somewhat odd aunt, is fairly retiring and doesn’t seek company. This theory goes up in flames when they arrive and find more of Ian’s relations, who have moved in due to them losing their home through financial mismanagement, overspending and debt. Even worse one of these relations makes the snide remark that Ian didn’t need to marry Miriel to prevent his uncle from marrying her. Romance levels begin to plummet from this point in, as Miriel questions her rash decision.
She keeps her marriage quiet at the hospital and learns of Ian’s uncle’s intentions to change his will, as well as hear his warnings to avoid his nephew. Of course, it is not long before he dies during one of Miriel’s shifts with him; his weakened and poorly heart giving out after an onslaught of episodes where he allergically reacts to the presence of feathers in his room. Yet where are the feathers? The medical team look high and low and can’t find them. However, later on at home, Ian picks up Miriel’s handkerchief and inside find a series of feathers; a handkerchief which came out of her nursing uniform. Was she behind his uncle’s death? How can Miriel prove her innocence? And in keeping with the Little form, more death and mayhem is to follow…
I’ve noted in a few of the Little novels how they veer away from saccharine sweet young couples in love and instead prefer to add a measure of grit and friction to the interactions between their central duos. This is certainly the case here where our newlyweds quickly hit a bump in the road, hours after getting hitched, only then realising how little they know about each other. Divorce is not an option they shy away from and only time will tell whether death creates an irrevocable rift between the two of them. Relationships between secondary characters also have their share of difficulties.
I found there to be something very Austen-esque about the piece; especially in terms of families, who have fallen onto hard times through imprudent spending, and are therefore keen to do well for themselves through creating better social connections. We also have Ian’s uncle and Miriel’s father who were planning her future for her behind her back. The issue of wills and rich relatives tired of doling out money also feature, as do several characters who are sensitive when it comes to class distinctions. Miriel’s father is a more benign example and despite his social goals, has to run a boarding house to make ends meet. Miriel even has to pay him to do her laundry; a secret they comically hid from her in-laws: ‘In fact, the only dirty linen that was not aired was Father’s undercover job as washwoman.’ In regard to literary comparisons, I would say the reader can spot more than one Sir Walter Elliot and even a variant on the Miss Havisham role.
Whilst an inept police force does join the narrative at a certain point, the investigation we get front row seats to, is the one conducted in an ad-hoc fashion by family friend and private detective, Montgomery Kelly. In keeping with the comedic nature of the Littles’ work, he gains employment as a butler within Aunt Violet’s household and much humour is generated through his inability to buttle. There is also some comic friction between Ian and Montgomery, as the pair do not especially get on.
Readers who enjoy reading vintage crime fiction for the social and cultural details they provide, will gain a lot from this book. The opening pages, for instance, offer an interesting spotlight on weddings and the preparation of and as a whole the story provides an entertaining take on the wartime bride theme. Suffice to say Miriel and Ian don’t get the honeymoon they were planning on!
The mystery in this tale works from small beginnings, but the Littles expand it out in different and intriguing ways. The household is full of secrets, so much so, that the majority of them are doled out in the manner of being told rather than shown. I would categorise this story as a comic thriller. It delivers a great deal of fun, but the solution is not one you’re going to figure out in a month of Sundays! Though the Littles write so well that this matters much less than it would with less skilled writers.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Written by more than one person
Calendar of Crime: June (8) Month Related Item on the Cover