Good by Stealth (1936) by Henrietta Clandon

This might be a new name to the blog, but this is actually an author I have encountered before; under a different penname that is. Hazlette Vahey had 6 pseudonyms. His most well-known one, relatively speaking, is Vernon Loder, but under his Clandon alias he seems to have experimented with a different writing style, presenting us with an inverted mystery in the Francis Iles manner.

Good by Stealth, is a first-hand account written by Edna Alice; a woman who starts out by telling how she was released from prison 10 months earlier. This manuscript is her side of the story, refuting the assertions made against her at her trial. Slowly over the first few pages we piece together that letter writing was behind her custodial sentence, yet Clandon, rewrites the poison pen letter narrative. Other novels have moulded us to view such writers in a conclusively negative light, as despicable people who cause a great deal of harm. But what unfolds in this story is a challenge, of sorts, against this stereotype. Clandon indulges in no white washing of such a character, though this too stretches to those characters who are supposed to be the “good guys” in this scenario. Hypocrisy certainly rears its ugly head in this tale.

Overall Thoughts

Edna is no ordinary anonymous letter writer, telling us early on that she is a ‘victim of persecution, one born before her time’ and that her letters were only ever written to encourage people to do the right thing, rather than out of spite. Of course, the reader is wary of such claims and the myopic viewpoint such a character is likely to have. Yet Clandon is skilful in writing the narrative in such a way that you cannot discount Edna’s opinion of her lot entirely out of hand. You get the sense that there is more than a grain of truth in it.

Edna’s “defence” commences from the time when she first settled in the country town of Lush Mellish and Clandon effectively builds up the ostracism Edna receives, in particular revealing how nasty comments rapidly develop into her series of pet dogs dying, in ways which suggest that they may have not been accidental.  Nevertheless, Clandon complicates the situation by also showing through Edna’s own discourse how she didn’t help her own cause. She set up and joined various local interest groups, yet her cultural snobbery, her conviction in always being right and her firm belief in giving “constructive” criticism means no one warms to her. Yet what swings the scales back in her favour with the reader is how the community’s dislike of her becomes excessive, leading to communal activities to humiliate her, always achieved in such a manner that nothing can be said out right against anybody. Double standards when it comes to behaviour also develop, with the police being remarkably unsympathetic and unhelpful when she comes to them for help. You can’t say that Edna set out to write anonymous letters, but a process of events certainly pushes her in that direction. Clandon is successful in gaining reader sympathy for Edna, despite her faults. In fairness Edna should have just moved house and ensured her dog couldn’t get out of her garden, but I guess that is beside the point…

When it comes to the letters themselves, they do not seem to be as venomous as they are usually reported to be in mystery novels. In fact, the reader even gets to read the first one, as well know the contents of later ones. So, it is quite surprising to see the comments the community make about them. If the letters are like the first one then their outrage seems over the top, but on the other hand, as Edna gets more and more involved in her letter writing, do the epistles become more unpleasant? There is also the question of how accurate her information is concerning some of her targets. This is where Clandon’s potentially unreliable narrator is quite interesting, as you don’t know who to believe more.

You never agree with Edna’s course of action, yet Clandon renders a great deal of pathos in the closing third of the book on her behalf, with some very poignant moments. I think it is because you can see how if the circumstances had been different, even to a small degree, Edna probably wouldn’t have done what she did. The Law is also illustrated in dubious colours and unlike other mystery novels, there isn’t a sense of victory in their success. Their behaviour seems rather underhand.

The plot is more ideally suited to a novella sized book, so there are some pacing issues towards the end, and I felt the denouement needed a little more oomph. However, the psychological features of the book are fascinating, as it is unusual for a crime writer to give so much focus to the inner workings of an anonymous letter writer; a priority invariably given to murderers instead. I would certainly be interested in trying more from the Clandon penname.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Dean Street Press (Review Copy)

See also: Les Blatt and Jason Half have also reviewed this title.

11 comments

  1. Very nice review. You do well to point out the hypocrisy of the villagers; there is some mean-spiritedness and small-mindedness at work there, definitely. And I enjoyed the author’s highwire act of trying to make a narrator protest her innocence as we watch her commit the crimes of which she is accused. (I know it’s addressed with a line, but if Edna believed the letters were as therapeutic and necessary as she claimed, why take such satisfaction in prowling to the letterbox and keeping them anonymous? The character may say she never acted out of spite, but she certainly takes satisfaction from her efforts.)

    By the by, I’m reading Vernon Loder’s The Essex Murders, and I think I already have my first line for the review: I doubt I have ever read a more amiable story of a triple homicide… 

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  2. In his Henrietta Clandon guise Vahey was getting in touch with his “feminine” side. Most of the books are either narrated by a female character or with a female protagonist. Five of the eight Clandon books are lighthearted detective novels with William Powell and the Mercers. Inquest and The Ghost Party (a rare one I own but was not reprinted by Dean Street probably because Curt doesn’t own a copy) are the only other stand-alones. Curt probably discusses all of this in his intros. I don’t own any of the new editions to check and the PDF Rupert sent of Good by Stealth lacked Curt’s intro. I don’t have any other way to read the digital files he provided in his PR email.

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    • Yes I can only use the pdf files as well as I too didn’t have a copy of the Curtis’ intro. Otherwise I no doubt would have commented on it. Perhaps Vahey thought the books would be more marketable coming from a female pen name?

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  3. BTW, is William Powell the lawyer in this book? Hubin’s Crime Fiction Bibliography says he is. But so far not one review has mentioned him. Maybe his is a very minor role in this book not worth reporting. Still I’d like to know. .

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    • The attribution of Stealth having William Powell in it is confusing to me, but I don’t know the character or the way Vahey uses him in other stories. In the book’s second half, (SORT-OF SPOILER) Miss Alice encounters a man named Mower whom her lawyer identifies as Power, an investigator/attorney who is helping to build a case against her. But as neither name was Powell, the series character, I assumed it wasn’t the same person. It’s also a rather incidental role, reported by the narrator as she explains past events.

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    • I imagine reviews have not mentioned him because he doesn’t appear until the final third of the book and I guess his role is perhaps something of a plot spoiler. He is certainly not front and centre stage in the piece.

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  4. Ugh. Damn autocorrect. I meant Power!! William Powell is an actor. My damn iPhone always remembers my IMDb.com searches. The lawyer in the books is William Power. So that’s him all right. Thanks Jason!

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