Although this reprint by Verse Chorus Press was billeted to be released last September, delays of some kind have meant it has only now become readily available. I perhaps felt this delay more keenly, having thoroughly enjoyed the other Wright novels this publisher has already reprinted. Second-hand copies of today’s read do not appear very often, although I was holding out for the reprint edition due to their informative introductions.
Reservation for Murder (1958) is Wright’s first Mother Paul mystery, a character choice which shows a departure in her work. I have talked about the transition her female characters go through in her mysteries in more detail in the talk I gave at Bodies in the Library Conference in 2019. A copy of this can be found here and since I had not been able to read any of the Mother Paul mysteries at that point, it focuses largely on The Murder in the Telephone Exchange (1948), So Bad a Death (1949) and The Devil’s Caress (1952). So it has been really interesting to read a Mother Paul mystery at last and see how it fits in with Wright’s changing depiction of women in her stories. I will be touching upon this a little later in the review.
Derham Groves writes the introduction for today’s read and I felt it contributed a great deal to my understanding of the book and its author. One of the things I did not know was that Mother Paul first appeared in a short story in March 1954 in Caritas; a Catholic monthly publication. In this story she solves the murder of a fellow patient at a private hospital, (having gone there herself to recover from a severe case of pneumonia). It was also interesting to discover that Wright was inspired to create Mother Paul after reading an interview by Arthur Upfield. He felt his out of the ordinary detective was a crucial aspect of his success. June Wright encountered nuns a lot in her life through school and having children, so had many sources to base her character on. However, St Mary Dorothea Divine is meant to have been a primary influence and she was a nun whom Wright met at the maternity ward when she gave birth to her twins.
‘Some of the twenty-five young women living at Kilcomoden, a Catholic-run hostel for ‘business girls’ in suburban Melbourne, have received anonymous poison-pen letters. Everyone assumes that they were written by one of the hostel’s mischievous paying guests, who are a particularly catty lot, but no one is quite so sure after Mary Allen finds a stranger stabbed to death in Kilcomoden’s front garden one Saturday evening. ‘Jess’ is the man’s mysterious dying word to her. Mary informs the imperturbable nun in charge of the hotel, Mother Paul […] before they call the police. Murder is too big for nice old Sergeant Wheeler to investigate, so handsome young Detective Inspector O’Mara from Russell Street CIB takes over. However, things go from bad to worse when two more hostel residents are found dead.’
Crimes which occur in this mystery all take place within a hostel for working/studying women; a setting which reminded me of Hilda Lawrence’s Death of a Doll (1947). In Australia, women’s hostels were common at the time, though it still made for an unusual background for Wright’s tale. In fact, according to Groves, she lived around the corner from one called Frank Tate House, which was dedicated to housing student teachers from the country. Strict curfews were often set, with inhabitants taking turns to record the times when other hostel inmates returned; an aspect which comes up in Wright’s plot, when Mary discovers the first body whilst waiting up for the last person to come back.
Wright’s portrayal of such a group of women is incredibly vivid and it is definitely femininity with its claws out. Groves comments upon this in his introduction writing that ‘what sets Reservation for Murder apart is the unabashed nastiness of the young women living at Kilcomoden.’ Moreover, in his review for the Guardian, Francis Iles said the book had ‘as fine a concatenation of cats as I have ever met.’ Wright’s hostel comprised many different personalities, so it is easy to see why quarrels and squabbles flair up so quickly, even without Uriah-Heep-like Verna, who slithers through the book trying to pry and make unpleasant insinuations. Given the intense female occupied setting, the first body, that of a mysterious man, on the grounds of the hostel, has quite a high impact and certainly opens a lot of potential motives.
Another key aspect of the plot is a series of poison pen letters, which Groves felt was a nod to Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935); which was one of Wright’s favourite mystery novels. I would also say there is a character within the hostel who is also a part of that nod to Sayers. The hostel is a really good choice of setting for this particular misdemeanour, as everyone has to spend a lot of time with the others, so tensions and acrimony soon begin to escalate. This aspect of the plot is very well executed, and I felt like it had an intrinsic role within the central mystery.
Although Mother Paul is now a primary sleuth, Wright has not got rid of the young female heroine entirely, who we have in our narrator Mary Allen. Unlike her literary predecessors her sleuthing is more in an assistant’s capacity, yet it through her that Wright can still incorporate a romance subplot into her book. Perhaps Wright felt it was easier to separate the roles over two characters rather than trying to maintain both within one, as her earlier works attempt to do.
Nevertheless, the romance subplot is still quite muted and un-idyllic. At the start of the novel Mary has a beau in the lacklustre accountant Cyril, a job Wright’s own husband held. Groves speculates as to whether Wright commented on her husband Stewart through this character. It is perhaps telling that he is not warmly portrayed, and the reader is soon convinced it won’t last. Stewart did not encourage Wright’s literary career, and her eldest son said the marriage was not a happy one. We hear a lot about Cyril before we ever meet him in person much nearer the end of the book. For instance, Mary says that:‘Cyril’s compliments are of a negative kind. He tells me if my colour isn’t as good as usual or that he prefers my hair done the other way.’ She also mentions at one point that ‘Cyril, although a serious eater, liked his food interlarded with polite conversation. I had once spent a three-course meal listening to his interpretation of the Companies Act.’ Romantic stuff huh? Cyril does not intrude upon the narrative very much, and at times I would say Mary even forgets he exists. Though perhaps she cannot be blamed too much for doing so:
‘Cyril and I had an exciting conversation about each other’s health, and finished up by making an even more exciting date to take a walk the following afternoon – rather late, because he had brought some figures from the office to work on over the week-end.’
So why has Mary kept up this lukewarm courtship? Contrary to Wright’s previous first books this novel touches upon the anxiety of being left on the shelf, an anxiety which may lead to settling for someone. Groves thinks this shift in relationships and female independence in her work is connected to the demands of her marriage and looking after her brood of 6 kids. Groves felt she was no longer in a place to create as feisty a character as Maggie Brynes, though I would say Mary still speaks her mind, even if it is in a more wearied tone.
You might be surprised to learn that Wright had not read any of the Father Brown mysteries, though Groves says Mother Paul ‘can be as oblique and unfathomable as Father Brown.’ Groves also makes the comments that:
‘However, as much of Mother Paul’s work is based on her deep understanding of human nature and, therefore, takes place in her mind, we often only hear about it after the event, which is not exactly playing fair with the reader.’
Having now read the book I feel this is a fair comment to make, which I will be talking about more later. Nevertheless, despite this aspect of Mother Paul, she is still an engaging sleuth. J. C. writing for the Advocate in 1961, in his article ‘June Wright Does it Again’ agrees with this saying that: ‘Mother Paul is indeed a most attractive personality, worthy to rank with the great sleuths of fiction… We shall be very disappointed if we do not meet her again.’
When reading Reservation for Murder, readers may be baffled by Wright’s inclusion of an American agent, who aids DI O’Mara’s investigation. It is an odd element and it is one which the book could have lost with no detrimental effect. So why add it in? Groves thankfully has a possible answer, digging into the culture of the time. Groves writes that: ‘Australians were so besotted by American popular culture during the 1950s, that the Australian architect Robin Boyd even invented the term ‘Austerica’ to characterise it…’ Near the end of the book there is a square dance and a barbeque, which were two American crazes popular in Australia at the time. It was information like this which made the introduction so useful an accompaniment to the text.
With the first body appearing at the end of chapter one and the police soon arriving on the scene, Wright’s book gets off to a traditional mystery start. However, I think this becomes less so as the case unfolds.Police interviews of the various hostel inhabitants don’t really occur as the police having identified the victim, quickly presume it was a gang related killing. Even when this viewpoint changes the typical interviews you would expect to see do not happen. Wright instead has the narrative prioritise watching Mary acting as the police snoop, providing information for the police and Mother Paul to slot into their grand schemes of what has been going on. Some comedy comes through Mary’s role and I particularly enjoyed her undercover experience as a customer at an expensive boutique.Whilst the police are belabouring under the impression that the crime is a gang related one, the investigation’s on page presence dies down. However, the continued problem of the poison pen author means that the plot does not lose too much steam and sets us up nicely for the next death.
It is unusual that the investigation’s assistant is the one who is at the forefront of the book, as both DI O’Mara and Mother Paul have a much shorter time on the page, with the latter working mostly behind the scenes. I think this choice affects how fair the solution feels and it also pushes the narrative into becoming more of a thriller. Both the police and Mother Paul keep back information from Mary and therefore the reader. Although Julian Symons wrote in a review that Wright’s story ‘can be recommended for its original setting… and for a neat surprise ending.’ Reflecting on the solution I think it also partially anticipates some aspects of a later Christie title.
So if you prefer a more puzzle focused mystery then I would suggest trying one of Wright’s earlier books. I don’t know how much of the solution you can anticipate ahead of time, as the primary sleuths do keep pertinent information to themselves, despite this putting Mary’s life in grave danger, (something they are a bit blasé about). Nevertheless, although there are those problems with the ending, I think Wright provides an enjoyable ride up to the finish. I was also quite surprised by a last-minute corpse which I didn’t expect, and the nature of their death, whilst not gory, is shockingly chilling. It’s hard to say whether it is odd for Wright to have included it or not, as given the change in tone of her work, which we see from The Devil’s Caress, it is sort of in keeping with this transition.
According to Groves’ introduction Faculty for Murder (1961) and Make-Up for Murder (1966) are due to be reprinted by Verse Chorus Press this year, though at the moment I can’t see any listing on Amazon to indicate when they might be released.
See also: John at Pretty Sinister has also reviewed this title.