Nearly two years ago I reviewed Three Sisters Flew Home (1936) and enjoyed it a lot. So typical me, it has taken quite a while for me to get around to trying another book by her. In keeping with this earlier read Fitt’s mystery is once more concerned with the past and its ability to cause violence in the present.
The book begins with Superintendent Mallett and his friend Doctor Fitzbrown attending the requiem mass for Robert Raynald. They did not know the man, and in fact Mallett is only in the area to attend some ARP committee meetings, yet his friend is intrigued to go, after he discovers three separate notices in the newspaper announcing Raynald’s death: one by his mother, one by his (estranged) wife, and one by his daughter. The inquest had decided that Raynald shot himself whilst temporarily insane. However, his daughter is not convinced and manages to find enough evidence to arouse the investigator within Mallett. From there he and his medical chum are told various stories about Raynald and his life, and the way various people and events ‘form[ed] a chain which le[d] to his tragic death.’
It is interesting that this book, which is heavily composed of flashbacks and recounted memories, came out in the same year Christie published Five Little Pigs (1942), another retrospective story. However, their style of flashbacks differ quite a bit, and I would not want to over-emphasise any comparison between the two.
Fitt’s brand of the flashback mystery is closer in form to the work of Patricia McGerr, (in particular Follow as the Night (1950)), and Margot Bennett’s The Man Who Didn’t Fly (1955). Although given the fact Fitt’s writing career began earlier, you could make a case for her being a precursor to the later two writers. Narratives, in particular mystery narratives, which are built up through various retrospective stories about a person or persons is an interesting structural device and one I can be rather fond of. Can be, though, is the operative word, as I think they are rather tricky to do well, without your story having little mystery in it. It runs the risk of coming across more like a straight novel, with a fictional biographical focus. Retrospective narratives which focus more widely on a person’s whole life history, perhaps run this risk more, as it becomes harder for the mystery to stay at the forefront. Bennett’s title circumvents this issue by having her retrospective narrative focus on the previous four days running up to the plane crash and with this shorter time frame the reader is encouraged to be attentive for clues. Fitt’s story however is of the life history variety and as such the first 50% of the book requires some perseverance, as the flashbacks are rather long and quite detailed. Thankfully in the second half, the flashbacks are more truncated and we can also see how the various pieces of Raynald’s life come together. The second half also features Superintendent Mallett more, which I found more engaging. Mallett is an entertaining sleuth and his interactions with his friend can be mildly comical at times.
With Three Sisters Flew Home, Fitt is able to more effectively maintain a growing sense of tension as we head towards the ending and wonder what crisis the characters will be faced with. She brings out the drama in her plot. I do not think she does this as well here, and there are places where I expected something dramatic to happen, but it did not.
Nevertheless, Fitt achieves moral complexity and ambiguity in her ending, which was interesting, although I disagree with how Mallett ‘apportions’ blame; his reasoning being a little skewed in my opinion. The denouement is a little flat perhaps from a mystery reader’s mindset, so I wonder if this tale is better enjoyed as a straight novel.
See also: Nick at The Grandest Game has also reviewed this title here and enjoyed it more than I did.