Last year JJ, on his blog The Invisible Event, brought this book and author to my attention. So speedy as ever, I have now finally got around to getting a copy. Though alas, like poor Brad, creator of the Ah Sweet Mystery blog, my edition also turned out to be an abridged version, meaning the story is covered in 140 pages. If you are looking to avoid a similar fate, I would recommend not getting one with the cover shown in this review. This edition was published by Belmont, who seemed to have produced this abridged version in 1964.
The book opens with Stephen Osborne, a middle-aged man with a family of 6, being made redundant. Much is made of how his predicament is similar to scores of workers in the area. Everyone is feeling the pinch and his chances of getting more work are slim. Their savings are meagre, and the redundancy pay won’t last long. His only option is to ask his older half-sister Octavia for support when she comes for her annual summer visit. Twenty-four years ago they fell out when Stephen married, and Octavia cut off all financial provision, despite her having been given all of their father’s wealth so she could take care of him. She said some day he would come crawling to her for help and that day has arrived. Naturally the reader is not surprised when Octavia not only turns down their request for help but drafts a new will which cuts them all out of it. She is left in the drawing room until her train home arrives. Ann, one of the grown-up Osborne children, stays with her reading, engrossed in her book. Suddenly she hears a scream, which is emanating from Miss Mimms, Octavia’s companion. She follows the companion’s finger, which is pointing at Octavia. Someone has killed her, strangled her no less – yet Ann saw nothing… The police swoop in and are convinced that one of the Osborne family or their faithful housekeeper has done the deed. But how can they find out which one did the crime?
From the get-go this story shows us it is far removed from the country house idyll that golden age detective fiction is sometimes reduced to. The first few pages establish well, the economic difficulties of the town Stephen lives in: ‘There was little hope for an out-of-work in Brancaster. The city lives on cotton and cotton is a decayed industry. Every fourth man in the city was unemployed.’ Moreover, whilst Stephen is still trying to come to terms with what has happened to him, unhelpful acquaintances further blacken matters by recounting the cases they know of men committing suicide and even murdering their families because they cannot get work again. Added onto which they make clear that those who seek economic relief from friends are to be socially ostracised. You can see how the writer effectively builds up a bleak environment for Stephen to view his own precarious situation in.
The unpleasant murder victim is a familiar sight in classic crime fiction, but I think Octavia would certainly be a contender for one of the most unlikeable ones. So you are definitely drawn to the Osborne family and are almost cheering them on when the older offspring give their aunt a piece of their mind. Very often the poor relation has to keep their grievances to themselves, so it is refreshing to see an example of them being able to express how they feel. For me this was when the book became more palpably emotive.
This is because the narrative is not solely focused with figuring out who did the deed but is deeply concerned with exploring and giving attention to the aftermath of the murder and the social consequences there are for having murder in the family. It is not just intrusive pieces in the newspaper or having crowds and cameras outside your home. But there is also the really poignant moment when the youngest child is ditched by his friends at school. It is hard to remain unmoved when you read such things. I certainly think this is a novel which makes you care.
On the whole I would say the choice of killer is a clever one, as James Ronald makes good use of other red herring suspects, though there is a piece of information which is not brought to light until the grand reveal. Reflecting on the fact my copy is an abridged version I think the closing pages are where you feel it the most, as the new confessions and revelations are dizzyingly unfurled. I imagine the ending is more wrapped up in the full-length edition too. However, other than those two aspects I think this shorter version actually works rather well and that the characterisation does not suffer because of it. My rating may have been affected a little by it, but it is still a story I rate highly.