Fanny Lynam is stressing about the arrival of her half-brother, Kit’s, fiancée Laura Greenslade, who is turning up next weekend. At the cocktail party to be held in her honour, Fanny is also inviting various locals, (not all of whom get on well with each other), as well as Sir Peter Poulter, a wealthy newspaper magnate and her novelist friend Clare Forwood, (who for undisclosed reasons is keen to meet Poulter. Why does Laura want to marry someone like Kit? Basil, Fanny’s husband, remembers Laura as one of his ex-university students and recalls that there was something peculiar about her. But what was it? And will Basil’s eye be drawn to the younger prettier woman?
Fanny always makes lobster patties for her parties and this party is no different. Yet this time around disaster strikes as the guests find them to be incredibly bitter tasting and everyone politely declines to eat them. The only one who enjoys them is Poulter, who happily gobbles most of them up. Later that night, unsurprisingly, he becomes violently ill and eventually he succumbs to poisoning. Although the local doctor is far from convinced that it is a case of simple food poisoning…
The only other Ferrars novel I have read is Frog in the Throat, which was published in 1980. Yet even with this much earlier novel, Ferrars shows quite a modern streak in her characterisation and the way she presents relationships. Firstly, there is Fanny and Basil, the latter of whom spends most of his life away from home, living in London near the university he works at. He is not a very demonstrative man and intellectually speaking the pair are quite different. It would not be wildly improbable to predict the disintegration of their marriage, with Laura as the catalyst, yet this situation never arises and as the crisis of the novel unfolds Basil actually reveals himself to be a very devoted husband and their marriage as a whole seems far more effective than others in the neighbourhood.
Ferrars doesn’t seem to be a writer who shies away from an awkward subject and she has another couple frankly discuss their relationship regarding the fact that the woman has the money, whilst the man happily loafs around doing very little, living off her inheritance. The way Ferrars portrays this issue and other relationships comes across as more nuanced and follows less predictable fictional narrative lines, which I found quite interesting.
This book poses bit more of a puzzle than the other title I read, as the crime setup opens up an array of questions to ponder over. Was the death an accident? Was it a malicious prank gone wrong? Or was it murder? And if so did the murderer get the correct victim? After all, Poulter, despite his wealth, was not a likely murder victim. Ferrars also adds greater complexity to the case by having the police identify the poison which killed Poulter, yet not one which has a strongly bitter taste, which suggests there is more than one substance involved. Does this mean more than one culprit?
The police only make one direct appearance in the book, as any other action they take is filtered through the suspect characters and this is a mystery that is solved through the suspects questioning each other and discussing the ideas that they develop, though not in a breezy light-hearted amateur sleuth kind of way. Despite the opening of the book this story is not twee in tone and the death of Poulter reveals different sides to the characters; some positive, some negative. Poulter’s death also leads to other unforeseen consequences, including a second death.
Also in this earlier novel Ferrars shows a much greater skill at laying false solutions to trip the reader up, as well as employing misdirection techniques and red herrings. In particular the narrative is good at forcing your attention to wander in the wrong direction. Having only read two books by this author I cannot say whether this is typical of her work or not, but the ending of this tale is surprisingly dark and violent, given the type of narrative you expect this to be and Ferrars doesn’t try to achieve a cosy or comfortable solution.
When it comes to motive I don’t think the reader will be able to figure it out as it is the final piece of information of the puzzle to be revealed and there isn’t anything particular in the narrative beforehand which would nudge you into thinking of it. However, as to the rest of the mystery I think the reader needs to latch on to one particular piece of probability or piece of logic in order to follow the correct train of thought for the solution. If the reader manages to do this then other parts of the narrative will push them in the correct direction. I, of course, say this all in retrospect, as I certainly did not accomplish this feat and instead one of my hunches turned out to be one of the false solutions.
So another enjoyable read by Ferrars. I have one more by her in my TBR pile and I think I will have to buy more by her in the future.