The Man Who Did Not Fly (1955), which was reprinted by the British Library earlier this year, has been one of my reading highlights. Naturally I then scoured the internet for other books by Bennett and today’s reads is one of the titles I managed to track down.
My copy is the Eyre & Spottiswoode edition and I really like the opening paragraph of the blurb it gives:
The lives of some people are a preparation for murder. Sarah didn’t know she was one of these. She planned to marry, and to live respectably ever after. The past was to slip into the obliging obscurities of time. Then one morning someone from the past returned and shot her dead.
I have decided not to include the remainder of their blurb synopsis as I felt it mapped out the trajectory of the book a little too well, even if it does not give away spoilers as such. In terms of suspects we have four men from Sarah’s past. They include a former husband, her first (and is it true?) her only real love, and two other beaus which were burnt by their time with her.
In keeping with her earlier work Bennett delivers another character driven novel. This time our primary focus is on Nancy. She had known Sarah for 6 years, having even shared a flat with her for a while. There romantic interests and acquaintances heavily overlap, with Nancy’s romantic possibilities being extinguished by the more dazzling Sarah. The night before Sarah dies, she bumps into Nancy and reveals that she has been receiving threatening letters from one of the four men in her past. She wants Nancy to figure out which one it is. Nancy does in fact eventually manage this, but not until it is far too late to help Sarah. This is no ordinary sleuthing role and Sarah’s news and death significantly impact Nancy’s own love life and even personal safety, as it is with one of these four, she has been getting close to lately.
Nancy is the narrator and whilst she is very much up to her neck in trouble and is at the heart of the mystery the novel relates, she is more of an accidental rather than an amateur sleuth. Her initial priorities are not to uncover the murderer’s identity and her alternative aim, once acted upon, thoroughly gets her into a tight corner. She is not the wisest of individuals, yet Bennett’s characterisation of her, does not place her comfortably within the heroine in jeopardy category.
The back story to Sarah’s death and the four men she was involved with is expertly woven into the text. I did fear I would have a long info dump to work my way through, but the author avoids this structural choice and instead we get snippets here and there which build up a highly nuanced and interesting picture. There is Sarah’s impoverished background and her desire to improve herself, coupled with her tendency to drop and pick people up on a whim. Yet she is not the stereotypical maneater you can find in fiction and I feel Bennett makes a point of revealing how the men, however wronged they might be, are not saints either.
This is not a traditional example of a mystery with a closed set of suspects, yet I would argue that is retains such a trope nevertheless. The focus really is on the four men and Nancy and Bennett is very good at making you wonder which one did it. She does not close off any options too soon and those that seemed closed are reopened upon new information. It is not safe as a reader to discount any one of them.
When I describe a book as character driven I wonder whether some readers immediately write the mystery off, as the phrase character driven is frequently combined with the notion of there being no puzzle. In some cases this is probably true, yet Bennett’s books so far do not seem to fit this pattern. It is easy to read the book and think there is no puzzle, that there is nothing for the reader to pick up on and analyse for the glimmers of a solution. The relationships are very much at the forefront and the author does not deliver an upfront puzzle mystery in which we follow the steps of an earnest sleuth. Yet as I reached the end of this book and reflected upon it afterwards, I realised how much Bennett does give in the way of clues. There are several highly significant clues which are the type that make you want to have a face palm moment for having missed them. Once you see them they appear so glaringly obvious, yet perhaps because they are not stereotypical clues such as footprints, they are more easy to miss or overlook.
Whilst I don’t think this book as quite as good as The Man Who Did Not Fly, I still very much enjoyed it and I am looking forward to trying more by Bennett.