Coachwhip Publications, in 2019, brought out this twofer named Murder in Malaya, which contains two reprinted novels by Dorothy Cole Meade; an author I have not come across before. Today’s read is the first of these stories, the other title is Death Over Her Shoulder (1939). She only wrote three detective novels in total and all of them are set in British Malaya, the second novel being The Shadow of a Hair (1939).
In the very informative introduction by Curtis Evans, it is revealed that it was Dorothy’s marriage to Captain Patrick Alexander Meade, a ‘world adventurer,’ which gave her the opportunities for travel in Southeast Asia. Captain Meade did in fact work with the Singapore police force for eight years during the 20’s. Aside from Dorothy’s choice of unusual setting, her stories also stand out for her choice of sleuth: Ismael, who is a Malaysian and Muslim police sub-inspector, operating within the sultanate of Johor.
Given the setup of this book there may be some concern as to its depiction of race. Once again Curtis’ introduction was of great help pointing out how Dorothy came from a family with an embracive rather than insular outlook on race, which may be partly due to them all attending a progressive unitarian church. Based on my reading of Fatal Shadows, there are many white characters in the story who are far from politically correct, yet there is not a sense of the narrative voice endorsing these sentiments. You can argue that Meade was writing what she saw. Moreover, as Curtis says about these ‘chauvinistic white interlopers,’ they ‘tend to underestimate the diminutive and self-effacing Malayan’ and ‘later they find to their dismay what Ismael’s white police colleagues already know: that those who discount Ismael do so very much at their own peril, for the shrewd and misleadingly mild Muslim is no white man’s (or woman’s) patsy.’
Fatal Shadows takes place in a hotel named the Rest Home in Johor Bahru. Ailsa Brownley is having a weekend party there, yet she has unwisely invited a whole group of people, who have good reason to hate her. On the night of the Sultan’s birthday, when there is a large public celebration, Ailsa goes into the hotel grounds to meet someone. Yet at the start of the book we know this has been a fatal decision, as one of her reluctant guests hears her piercing cries and discovers her dead. She has been stabbed with a dagger. Which of her party did the deed? Was it Janet Durham, jealous of the way Ailsa was vamping her husband for material gain? Was it Harry Gordon who was resentful of Ailsa’s hold on his wife Berenice? Perhaps it was Susan Ames who cannot pay her bridge debts? Or was it Ailsa’s own husband, who was desperate to return to England, but baulked by her own preferences?
The book opens on something of a Rinehart note:
‘A girl’s scream, sharp and agonised, shattered the brooding stillness of the tropic light […] the sound of pattering feet and excited voices reached the straining ears of Bruce MacAlistair as he stood rooted to the lawn in the squat shadow of the building.’
Bruce MacAlistair in these opening pages comes across as a romantic hero, yet Meade quickly dispels this notion. MacAlstair is not the sharpest tool in the shed, initially thinking Ailsa has fainted, and as the book progresses, despite spending a lot of time with a younger unattached female suspect, this part of the plot is not pursued in the Rinehart manner. Though it is through MacAlistair that we see the initial moments after the crime and it is also through him that we gain a flashback to dinner that evening. This gives us some initial hints of the undercurrents within the group and the motives they may have had for killing Ailsa. Ailsa and her husband Bob are quite similar to William Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and Rawdon Crawley in Vanity Fair (1848). Ailsa has used her feminine wiles to snap up a rich man, but unfortunately that man has run out of cash and they are now very much living beyond their means, leading Ailsa to use blackmail, bridge and flirting to keep up their social reputation.
Berenice is also an intriguing character as at face value she seems more of an Amelia Sedley than a Becky Sharp, yet once the layers of her character begin to peel away, they reveal a far harder, but ineffectual, Sharp-like personality. Both she and Ailsa are women who grew up dreaming of luxury and an easy affluent life; a dream which has marked their lives for better or worse.
Ismael does not have a huge amount of page time, often going off page to complete a task and then bringing the results of it back to his superior police officer Campbell. Yet it is clear that Ismael is the brighter of the pair, and even his superior tells him: ‘It has been you who has solved most of the crimes in Johore. I just do the hack work that gives you the inspiration. It’s a damn shame you aren’t white so that you could have proper recognition.’ Naturally a modern reader may like to point out that Ismael doesn’t need to be white to deserve recognition. Ismael’s acceptance of his superior’s point may also seem at odds with reader’s today: ‘That I don’t want. My place is in the background beside you. With you before me, no one notices a fat old native, and I can work better. What could the government give me that could bring me happiness? The Malays have the art of living. I wouldn’t change with a white man.’ Today this would come across as a convenient way of sidestepping the underlying problem, but I think these lines need to be seen in light of the whole book. Ismael is able to criticise his superior, and ultimately it is he who identifies the killer, the murder method and devises the plan to catch the killer. The reader is left in no doubt about who is the better detective. Even the murderer at the end of the book seems to acknowledge this: ‘Of all XXXX auditors only the insignificant little Malay had shown any real understanding of XXXX suffering, and of XXXX character.’ (Naturally I took the possessive pronoun out to prevent the ending being spoilt)
Though to give a fuller picture of Campbell he does not show favouritism to the white suspects and is completely sceptical about their ideas that it is one of the servants or locals. There may be the erroneous suggestion of crimes committed by white people being more complicated, but Campbell gives no quarter to his suspects and when they are being unpleasant, he and his work colleagues express ‘distaste’ and tend to ‘glower’ at them.
Given that this is a debut mystery, it is not surprising that Meade’s text has some “beginners” flaws. One of these is a tendency to overuse a trope device, in particular the one where a character hints at knowing who did it and then can’t get access to the police or where a character knows who did it, but won’t reveal their knowledge until a certain later point. Of course this character is a grade A wally and is shortly afterwards murdered. This device has been used well in titles by Christie such as Appointment with Death and Death on the Nile, but unfortunately Meade’s handling of it is less competent. Although you can argue that if Campbell had dealt with these suspects/witnesses more effectively then they would not have died. In some ways the narrative and therefore the investigation is shaped by Campbell’s mistakes. According to Curtis, Ismael has a bigger role in Death Over Her Shoulder, so I wonder whether his greater competence rids this later title of this issue.
I think the handling of this device becomes more of an issue in this book as it impacts how much the reader can figure out before the solution is revealed. A lot of time is spent with the suspects discussing the case, wondering who could have done it, and during this time certain motives and backstories get repeated. Bruce’s backstory, for instance, gets three full airings, which did seem excessive.
However, I should have cottoned on to the “how” of the crime much sooner, as retrospectively I can see how Meade supplies sufficient clues earlier in the text. This element of the book is one of the story’s more unusual aspects. I don’t think I have come across that way of killing someone before. I’m fairly sure Christie has not used the unusual aspect of this murder method, (can’t be more specific without spoiling it).
The Asian setting of the book is well used in the narrative and I enjoyed seeing the different reasons which contributed to the Western characters coming to live there. There is also an underlying commentary on the effect living in Asia has on such people, with the very real potential for atrophy. The book ends on an unusual, perhaps disquieting note for the modern reader: ‘Think what the tropics have done to all of us; the way our judgment has been warped, our perspective twisted. Can’t you see that none of this could have happened except here in the Far East?’ Yet given Meade’s own life I don’t think this opinion is one we are meant to regard as one she actually held, though I wonder if it is comment which embodies a cultural anxiety of the time period.
I am suitably intrigued by Ismael and Meade’s potential to use the unusual in her stories, so I am going to be trying Death Over Her Shoulders next.
Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip Publications)