No one would mistake me for a big fan of Marsh’s work, yet I always felt this was one of her better ones. So I thought it might be safe for a re-read. Let’s see if I was right…
Today’s read is set in the village of Swevenings, which has the River Chyne running through it and the plot focuses on 4 separate households and a district nurse whose work weaves its way through the narrative and it is through her that we are introduced to the various characters and soon to be suspects and murder victim. There is the eccentric Octavius Danberry-Phinn, owner of many cats and who is at odds with two of his neighbours. He hates the alcoholic Commander Syce who he is convinced deliberately killed one of his cats during archery practice, and Octavius also sees Colonel Maurice Cartarette as a big angling rival. Both of these characters are determined to be the one who catches the infamous trout, the Old ‘Un. Across the river we have Nunspardon Manor which houses the dying Sir Harold Lacklander and his wife, Hermione. Their son and grandson also live with them, the former of which is spending much time on his golf course with the Colonel’s wife, and the latter is equally an ardent suitor of the Colonel’s daughter, Rose.
Yet the first death in the book is a natural one, that of Sir Harold. But within the last few moments of his life he commissions the Colonel to edit and publish his memoirs. However this is no light undertaking, as the Colonel is stuck between a rock and hard place. If he publishes the memoirs as they are, one part of it will cause a great deal of scandal for the Lacklander family and much social opprobrium. But if the Colonel excises this section of the memoir he is likely to perpetuate an injustice. This understandably causes a great deal of animosity between the two families and the disagreement is still rumbling on in the final events leading up to Colonel’s death. This time the death is not a natural one. It’s murder and a pretty brutal one to boot.
The main question I had during this re-read was this: Why did I rate this one higher than other Marsh novels, when I first read it?
Discounting concussion and other environmental factors, I was a little stumped. The initial setup is effective and I enjoyed the way the nurse is a joining character, who makes her way through the different households. Yet, for me, what kills a Marsh novel, or at the very least maims reader enjoyment, is the introduction of Inspector Alleyn. The introductory chapters give the reader a leg up in regards to one underlying motive/secret. However, this secret is withheld in its entirety from Alleyn for most of the investigation and during this re-read, the high number of moments when a character says ‘I have a secret but I can’t possibly tell you, but don’t worry it couldn’t possibly affect the case,’ did begin to grate. The pacing is detrimentally affected as a consequence and on reflection I wonder whether this story could have functioned better as a novella, as the whole let’s keep the obvious thing a secret from Alleyn does bulk the plot out a lot.
In fact this thought led me to consider other elements of the investigation. When Alleyn is not being fobbed off by suspects, he does have a significant amount of physical clues to grapple with, as well as alibis and timings. So much so that I wondered if this story could have worked better as a novella along the Inspector French line?
At the end of the day Inspector Alleyn is too banal a detective for me to get behind. If I had to assign him a colour it would be beige. My memory seems to have let me down on this occasion, as I originally thought in this one that Marsh had written a more interesting police investigation than usual. But it seems I might be wrong. The ending gave me two contradictory feelings. On the one hand I was disappointed in the choice of culprit. It seemed all too convenient from a certain point of view. Yet on the other hand I enjoyed the artistic skill that went into the structuring of the ending, with its use of two parallel locations. Characters in each location are unravelling under the pressure, but only one location yields a killer. The reader is unsure which one it is.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on this one. I don’t know. Or perhaps, to be more generous to myself, my reading preferences have simply changed. But one thing I do know is that Marsh is a marmite author, so I expect many differing opinions on this one.
Calendar of Crime: July (7) Book Title Word Starting with J