In America I think today’s read was published under the name Why It Happened. Until now I have only read Lowndes’ most famous novel, The Lodger (1913), which was a fictional response to the Jack the Ripper killings. This is told more from the perspective of a couple who become increasingly suspicious of their lodger. I have been planning to read more by her, for a while, especially once I read further about her work in Victoria Stewart’s book, Crime Writing in Interwar Britain (2017).
The novel begins with a prologue, set on New Year’s Day and we are introduced to the second footman at Blackmere Castle; home of Sir Thomas and Lady Flora Clarkson. The majority of their house party guests departed, and only two remain. Whilst things start off feeling a bit too saccharine, rather reminiscent of Downton Abbey, we soon get to see the decay beneath the pleasant façade. Not least when we follow the second footman into Sir Thomas’ study and we find him dead, his head blown off with a shot gun. Initially it is believed to have been an accident, with the shoot gun having been carelessly left nearby, loaded. It is only when we get to the inquest that the question of murder raises its’ ugly head…
The narrative then sweeps us back in time to 18 months previously. We discover Lady Flora was secretly engaged to a barrister who has had to leave for a time to go to India to further his career and accrue big financial rewards. Her father, a selfish spendthrift, reveals that the coffers are empty and that they will lose their ancestral home. He and others strongly desire her to marry well and tehe mother of her barrister fiancé is keen for her son to avoid a wife who is near penniless. A prudent match is naturally made, but in the run up to Sir Thomas’ final Christmas, we see that things are far from well…
But who did actually kill him?
From the synopsis above, it is evident that this is a story very much shaped in the Victorian/Sensation Fiction mould. Despite being written in 1938 and having all of the suitable technological improvements, this is a tale which could easily pass as an earlier work. In some ways the narrative it tells feels almost anachronistic for the 1930s, especially with the ways certain characters sacrifice themselves, get their just desserts, or get exonerated. As such, it is a plot most readers will know by heart. It is like being given jigsaw pieces and each time you are handed a new piece, you know exactly where it must go to complete the final picture. There are no surprises in store here and even at 256 pages it definitely felt long winded.
But what about the characters? I’m not going to lie. I didn’t really get on with any of them. Flora, our heroine of the hour, starts out nauseating with her devotion to her barrister, and ends up as dull as ditch water after her husband is killed. You can’t feel particularly sorry for her plight, maybe we’re not even supposed to. She went into the marriage with her eyes open, and Lowndes to her credit does not make Sir Thomas out to be an ogre when Flora first meets him. He is socially awkward, and his poor upbringing left him with few tools to navigate social interactions and relationships, but his feelings are sincere and there is potential in him to improve. In the runup to his marriage I would say Lowndes inserts a number of sympathetic notes. I guess she had to in order for Flora to bear marrying him, but I was less convinced by Lowndes’ truncated depiction of how their marriage falls apart. It literally seems to be a case of Sir Thomas, (a teetotaller), getting his drink spiked by a jealous best man and him trying to kiss her in public. Then the narrative jumps ahead to the following Christmas and neither seem to be able to stand the sight of other and Sir Thomas’ flaws are now brought to the fore.
The actual matter of solving who did the murder is given very little importance. A man is put on trial, who you know mustn’t have done it, and it is a simply a case of waiting for the 11th hour reprieve. Although I will say Lowndes ends her novel on something of a disquieting note.
So sorry folks, this was another not so great read.