This is the book. The book which I have been hunting for, for years. We all have one of those books, don’t we? In my case it was a book from a favourite author, and this was the only title left I needed to complete the Jane and Dagobert Brown series. My main difficulty in getting a hold of this book was the fact there were no copies available online, ridiculously priced or otherwise, except for two occasions during the past 4-5 years; both of which went beyond my budget. It hasn’t helped that this book is only available in hardback and there are no paperback reprints. It seemed like I was destined to never get this book until I had a lovely surprise last week when I received an email from someone who knew I was looking for the book and knew of one being sold. It was very much a Willie Wonka golden ticket finding moment.
Of course, there was that anxious wait for the item to arrive in the post: would it get lost? Then there was a new anxiety: What, if after all this time, the book was terrible?
The Brown novels have a distinctive feel, particularly when it comes to how they begin. Jane Brown, adhoc writer, narrates their adventures and usually the first chapters update you on their current circumstances: where they’re living, their financial situation and what is the latest madcap idea her husband Dagobert is pursuing. All these elements are present in today’s read, though the seasoned reader of this series may be in for a shock: Dagobert has got himself a salaried job! It is hard to say whether Jane or the reader are more surprised. It is not that he is workshy, but he very much hates routine and prefers taking on freelance projects which are intellectually stimulating, though very unlikely to yield much of a, or sometimes any, financial recompense.
Initially Jane tells us that:
‘Dagobert was wavering between work of an unspecified nature and a deserted monastery in a remote Sardinian hill village which was going for practically nothing when his great-uncle Tancred died and left us a hundred shares in Amalgamated Ferro-Concrete (Lathomstowe) Limited, market value seventeen pounds, five shillings each.’
Past experience told her to buy ‘an Italian dictionary, a pair of stout boots at Lillywhites and a large tin of D. D. T.’ Yet it seems instead Dagobert has got himself a job at the personnel branch of Amalgamated Ferro-Concrete. The regular reader of the Brown novels will be further surprised to hear that Dagobert goes on to enlarge ‘upon the advantages of regular employment with an enthusiasm he normally reserves for projects like crossing the Gobi Desert in a Land Rover.’ Jane further records that:
‘Security, he told me over the lobster thermidor, was basically what I longed for. Like every woman, I was at heart, he said, a suburban housewife who dreamed of settling down in a house of her own.’
The new-to-Ames reader should take these patriarchal statements with a pinch of salt though, as such remarks are bathetically undercut by Jane:
‘The quotation was not unfamiliar. I may have said something like it myself last year when we lived above the tinsmith in the Grand Suk in Tangier.’
Throughout the series we see Jane despairing at Dagbert’s latest maverick decision, whilst equally rather enjoying the adventures that ensue. I have quoted at length from the opening page, as one of the real pleasures of the series is the narrative voice and it is during these pages, that the new “adventure” is set up, but also when we begin to discover where the catch might be. Can we really imagine Dagobert keeping to a regular 9-5 job for long? And for nothing to go wrong during it?
Jane and Dagobert have travelled the world, yet it seems like the conventional lifestyle, might be the finish of them and this is the only novel in which their relationship, for a time, is pushed to breaking point. But Ames explores this very adeptly and in a fairly unusual way. It all starts when the Browns move into their new rental home; their landlady, Beryl, deciding to rent her home and live elsewhere, when her husband ups and leaves her to run away with a typist to Canada. Jane is inspired to write a novel about this marital discord and how their landlady’s determined nature to be the perfect housewife may have contributed to her husband’s departure. The novel remains unpublished, thrown in the bin, but little by little Jane appears to be turning into Beryl and Dagobert has begun to stay out late. Jane writes:
‘I wrote Beryl’s story. Then one day I awoke with a jolt to find I was living it.’
Everything tries to come to a head one night. Jane is convinced Dagobert is about to tell her he is leaving her for another woman. The reader is not so sure. The answer is, of course, very Dagobert-like and once this truth has been revealed then the zaniness of the earlier novels comes flooding in.
But where is the mystery Kate? That is a fair question. There is one, don’t worry, but Ames comes at it from an unconventional angle beyond this stage in the story and to explain it accurately would entail describing a lot of the book and I don’t want to spoil it for you. (Yes, I appreciate the likelihood of anyone getting a hold of this book, short of a reprint, is unlikely, but you never know.) So, to give you some hints, it involves a series of incidents in which life and limb are threatened, but do not succeed in doing so – all the time. Those involved are reluctant to involve the police. There are many misunderstandings, late nights and hidden identities. Metafiction weaves a wonderful thread through the whole piece with real life becoming fiction and fiction becoming real life.
If any book in this series was to be the odd one out, then I would say it was this one. Now there is a general shift which take place over the series. The earlier books 1-5 are more puzzle orientated in my opinion and the second half of the series becomes more setting, comedy and character focused. This is especially the case for those set on the continent and Ames would go on to write quartet of mysteries set in Spain in the 1960s, with Juan Llorca as the detective. There are some exceptions in the later Brown books, particularly Crime Gentlemen Please (1954) and For Old Crime’s Sake (1959). Nevertheless, regardless of this change, the Brown books are invariably light and breezy.
Not so this time with She Wouldn’t Say.
Instead of the typical opening in which the Browns begin their latest trip/working holiday, we have the fracturing of the Brown’s relationship as they “settle down” and this sets the book off on a darker note. It is interesting that Ames builds up this difficulty over the first quarter of the novel, before using the confrontation to direct the plot in a different direction.
Consequently, it takes some time for the “crime” to appear and it certainly does not materialise in a linear fashion. The bodies in Ames’ novels tend to follow orthodox routes, with a corpse appearing and the Browns plunging in to figure out what happened. In some ways this time round Dagobert is waiting for a murder which has not taken place yet and it is a case of whether he can anticipate when it will occur. For the reader this presents an unusual reading experience as it takes some time to map out the trajectory of the plot. There is still a great deal of comedy to be had in this piece, in case any Brown fans were concerned about the untypical opening of the novel. In keeping with some of the later books the detection is looser, but as always there remains a great deal of fun to be had.
Am I disappointed this wasn’t a 5/5 read? I don’t think I am too much. Having read the other books I knew that the later books tend to shift focus – though as I have said this does not impede the entertainment the read had to offer. Don’t get me wrong a 5/5 would have been brilliant, but I think this book is akin to Schrödinger’s Cat experiment. Not knowing what the book was about and whether or not it was any good, was far more irksome than being able to open the box, or in this case book, and discovering the book was more of a middle of the road read. Whilst I wouldn’t recommend this book as an introduction to the series, an Ames completist need not fear it being a dire read.
Finally, I have decided I am going to circle back to the first three books in the series and review them, with the aim of producing another ranked list. Bet you can’t contain your excitement now, can you?