Murder in the Family (1940) by James Ronald

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?

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 4.5/5

14 comments

  1. Kate – thanks for the review. I also purchased this on the strength of JJ’s review awhile ago.

    I am disappointed to see that I also have the 140 page, abridged version as you have. I will take optimism from your review and rating though so will move this to the top of Mount TBR as you have me curious.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh well at least it’s not just me who has ended up with the shorter version. I think that edition must be the more widely available one. I look forward to reading your thoughts on the book, once you have time to read it.

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      • Kate – I just finished this one, but only after finding the hardcover edition that is unabridged. I was annoyed to have an abridged version and wanted the author’s full text.

        I am pleased to say that I guessed the murderer immediately. That person reminded me of a culprit from a certain Agatha Christie novel, but I won’t say which one to not spoil this for others. As JJ says, the motive is heartbreaking and the victim is as awful as any I have read in GAD fiction. She reminds me of Mrs. Boynton in Christie’s Murder in Mesopotamia that way.

        James Ronald made a good first impression. I have his, They Can’t Hang Me, in my TBR pile so look forward to reading more of him.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t think I have that Ronald book, but I do have This Way Out, which JJ also really enjoyed. May get around to reading it this month.
        Well done on finding a non-abridged version of MITF!

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  2. It’s frustrating just how much of Ronald’s stuff seems to have been abridged before publication — most of what comes up for sensible money is shortened, which means the full texts only get more and more expensive…and, if someone had recently decided that James Ronald was a wonderful author of no small talent, just try to imagine how frustrating I, er, they would find this.

    lad you enjoyed this, however, despite not getting the full text. The motive here really breaks my heart, and having read four of his books I’m still amazed at how successfully Ronald applied himself to such different styles inside the genre (he wrote a bunch of stuff outside of the genre, too — which might explain the confidence with which he is able to skip so easily betwixt styles — but I’ve not read any of that). I see This Way Out crop up in your sidebar, too, so hopefully you’ve got the full version of that and will enjoy it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am also somewhat baffled, as the abridgements seem to take place quite a while after the war, so there does not seem to be the paper rationing excuse for doing so. Also this book, for example, is hardly a long book – is it really in need of an abridged version? I agree with you about the motive, though naturally it was not something I could specifically comment on. I don’t think I have come across a similar example elsewhere and as you say it truly is heart breaking. Very much looking forward to TWO – not checked, but it is hardcover, no dustjacket, so I am hoping it is less likely to be an abridged version.

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  3. I presume JJ has the Hodder and Stoughton 1949 hard cover edition . That is unabridged. The Lippincott 1940 hardcover edition is also unabridged.
    The two paperback editions (Mercury Mystery 1952 and Belmont Books 1964) are both abridged.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. There was a review of this book in the Australian newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald dated the 21st January 1950 (page 7). I quote it for the interest of the readers:

    MURDER IN THE FAMILY, by James Ronald (Hoddor & Staughton,London.}

    ONCE upon a time 3/4½ would buy “six foaming glasses and a double whisky” and a middle class family of seven could live on £7 a week. That is the period of this pleasing, unsophisticated story.
    As a boy Stephen Osborne was “wild” and his father’s will gave all to Stephen’s half-sister Octavia,
    with a “sort of direction that she was to consider half the money her brother’s and administer it on his behalf.” At first she gave him a generous allowance, and promised to make over his portion some day, but when he married without her consent she was furious, “more like a jealous mistress than a loving sister” and cut him off without a penny. So he took a job with a Brancaster firm and reared a family of three girls and two boys, aged 12 to 22 when the tale begins, at which time he has just lost his job after 24 years’ service.
    His hopes of assistance from Octavia, whose annual visit is due, are quickly dashed. On arrival she is more rancorous than ever, declares that she will leave everything to charity except for an annuity of £100 to her frail, timid companion, Miss Mimms, and when Michael, the eldest son, and Ann, the second daughter, are stung to bitter replies, decides to cut her visit short. As she waits in the drawing-room for the train, Ann, sitting opposite, absorbed in a book, is startled by a scream and sees Miss Mimms pointing a trembling finger at her aunt, stiffly upright in her chair, with eyes, protruding, livid cheeks, and a gaudy scarf, tightly knotted round her throat.
    All the family are suspects as well as the cook and jovial, dissolute Uncle Simon. They are harried by the Press, by peering villagers, and curious Londoners. The police, finding the evidence indecisive, declare the case closed. As publicity is fading, the “Sunday World” announces “The Family That Can’t Forget: An Absorbing Human Document,” and drives the mother to desperate action that brings a solution from an unexpected source.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Belmont was a bottom-of-the-market paperback house, and loved to publish slim paperbacks, presumably since they probably bought or employed printers who still used older paperback binding/printing presses which produced slim volumes easily, fatter volumes with difficult when at all. MERCURY MYSTERY had the arguable excuse that they were essentially a magazine with procrustean 130pp (if I remember correctly) of space for every book/issue they ran off. (As you almost certainly know, that was the longest-running of the newsstand “book” lines published by Mercury Press, the publishers founded upon purchase of THE AMERICAN MERCURY and which chose to defray the expenses of publishing that largely political magazine by also offering ELLERY QUEEN’S MYSTERY MAGAZINE and various other titles to the public…the MERCURY being in a sense a descendant of THE SMART SET, a cultural magazine of somewhat more elaborate presentation which had helped its own balance sheets by offering a pulp adventure/crime fiction magazine called initially THE BLACK MASK.

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