I was super excited to read this one, having loved The Man Who Didn’t Fly (1955), which the British Library reprinted last year. Martin Edwards gives The Widow of Bath a strong write up in his introduction: ‘The mystery puzzle is intricate, the characterisation strong, the setting evocative, and the prose elegant and witty.’ Martin goes on to include an excerpt from the original blurb: ‘The intensity of the psychological conflict is as vital to the story as the peculiarities of the murder. In this purely British thriller the characters are drawn with a French precision and the story moves at the pace which has until now been almost an American monopoly.’ Suffice to say my expectations for Bennett’s fourth novel were certainly raised!
‘Hugh Everton was intent on nothing more than quietly drinking in the second-rate hotel he found himself in on England’s south coast – and then in walked his old flame Lucy and her new husband and ex-Judge, Gregory Bath. Entreated by Lucy to join her party for an evening back at the Bath residence, Hugh is powerless to resist, but when the night ends with the judge’s inexplicable murder he is pitched back into a world of chaos and crime – a world he had tried to escape for good.’
Bennett presents us with an unusual amateur sleuth. Martin describes Hugh as ‘a young man who has adjusted his life to respectability after serving a short prison sentence in connection with an incident which almost cost him his life. Whilst working in a junior role for the British Embassy in Paris, he was duped by a man called Freddy Ronson and betrayed by a beautiful woman called Lucy.’ As the book unfolds we are able to find out more about this incident and I think whilst the author offers us a morally ambiguous protagonist, his backstory steers us towards a mostly sympathetic attitude concerning him. It was a good move on Bennett’s part to make Hugh unsure whether Colonel Atkinson used to go by the name of Ronson, as it makes the reader less confident in believing everything he thinks. There is a chance he has got things wrong.
Upon reading the title of this book I instantly wondered if the writer was alluding to Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’. This is one of the stories contained in the Canterbury Tales. The prologue of this tale condemns sexual double standards, whilst the actual tale suggests that the thing women want the most is sovereignty over their husbands. Without going into spoiler-ish details, I would say that Bennett’s novel does engage with Chaucer’s story and if you examine the plot as a whole there are 3-4 female characters who are lynchpins in the narrative, even if they are not always at the forefront. I was left wondering if these figures are different explorations or interpretations of women trying to gain or hold on to sovereignty over men, as well as sovereignty over their own lives. Personal autonomy is definitely a key underlying theme and it is interesting to see how successful these characters end up being in regards to this endeavour. Furthermore, in ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’ there is a thwarting of traditional justice via female agency and I think Bennett incorporates that aspect into her mystery as well, although not in the way you would expect.
Naturally Hugh is highly involved in these issues as relationship-wise he is somewhat entangled on more than one front. Hugh, despite being badly treated by Lucy, is still lured in by her, to a degree, which damages his interest in Jan, the Judge’s niece. They too have a history, with the spectre of Lucy having terminated their romantic relationship in the past. Near the beginning of the book, when Lucy and Hugh have some time alone to talk, Lucy reveals a lack of guilt or remorse for her part in getting him put in prison. She quite openly says she did not see the point of her suffering as well as him and instead tries to blame him for ‘living up to your own idea of yourself.’ This made me think that Hugh’s silence over her involvement in the affair was born out of a sense of chivalry, so it is interesting to see Lucy reframe chivalry in a more complicated and less idealistic light.
Hurt by a woman, resentful, socially come down in the world, and in financially poorer circumstances, you could say Hugh is set up to be a noirish character. Early on in the mystery, especially, Hugh can oscillate between balanced and catastrophising moods, in which he decides everyone has insulted him and are against him. Due to this stance, I think it makes it harder for him to trust those around him and for them to get close to him and this adds to our own misgivings about the others. Moreover, his interactions with Lucy reveal a love-hate clash within himself. He knows she’s bad news and overtly expresses his disregard for her. For example, he asks Lucy: ‘Are you as luxurious, greedy, mercenary, unscrupulous, selfish, faithless, ambitious, and lax as ever?’ In true femme fatale style she replies, ‘I’m a civilised woman…’ Furthermore, after the murder of the judge, Hugh again delineates one of her many failings: ‘Think of something cheerful […] Think of the clothes you’ll be able to wear at the murder trial. The press photographers, the all-night queue gaping as you sweep past in your simple widow’s weeds from Paris.’ He tries to re-frame this as a helpful response to her hysteria: ‘Well, it’s better than getting a jug of cold water and pouring it over your face […] Take my remarks as a kind of verbal anti-hysteria slap, containing no malice.’ Nevertheless, I don’t think the reader is convinced that they are lacking in ‘malice’ and some of his anger is arguably directed at himself when he sees himself slipping back into old ways.
Hugh’s ambiguity as an amateur sleuth also gives him a noirish edge, as some of his actions have quite violent and fatal outcomes for those around him. His approach to sleuthing is to very much stir things up and to run head first into them, without really knowing what is going on. Unsurprisingly, the more he does this, the more the reader can see him becoming enmeshed in a much bigger criminal conspiracy. This is one of the many strengths of Bennett’s book as there is more than one criminal plot going on, with original criminous plans going awry due to them colliding with someone else’s. I felt this really added to the puzzle of the mystery.
However, this noirish aspect of the book is only one part, and I wouldn’t even say it is the overriding style of the piece. The overt style of the mystery is still one in the classical mode, albeit one with thriller components. The judge’s death establishes the puzzle element of the novel well and it is an incident which is well set up. The judge goes to bed, with Hugh playing bridge with Lucy and her two male friends downstairs, one of which possibly being Ronson, much changed. But when the shot is fired immediately our ears prick up, as well as Hugh’s – why does no one want to leave the table? This is one of the many questions which the reader returns to again and again as the book develops. Moreover, there is the fact that the people with the best motives for killing the judge have an irrefutable alibi and again that piece of information rumbles around in your head. It is like a jigsaw piece, and you just can’t figure out where to put it and I did wonder if it was riffing on Christie’s more famous bridge game set mystery, Cards on the Table (1936). The crime scene provides its own oddities to the case as well as the fact that the judge’s sheep dog, Baxter goes missing on the day of his death. Baxter’s role in the story felt like a playful reversal of the dog in Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Adventure of Silver Blaze’ (1892).
There is a small thread of humour which weaves its way through the book. At times this comes across in Hugh’s double-edged conversation with Lucy, whilst on other occasions, Hugh’s satiric view on things is directed towards the baffling nature of the judge’s demise:
‘I see what you mean […] The judge went upstairs, fired a shot at the dog that broke its legs. It howled. That frightened a cat, placed in a pre-arranged spot. The cat bolted, setting off a photo-electric cell that released a trigger that fired a shot, silenced, that killed the judge. I like these scientific murders.’
I especially enjoyed this passage in which the publicity a death brings a place is satirised:
‘…when the full account reached the newspapers, the sightseers would arrive. If the murder was never solved, the National Trust might take over. Murderer’s corner… The thought of the silent figure on the floor, the floating form in the bath, would draw the crowds more certainly than the quill in the empty ink well, the knowledge that forgotten poetry had been composed in the room that had looked on the lake before the garage was built. This way to the room where he cut her up, threepence extra admits to the kitchen where the poison was mixed. Why not be photographed with a gun at your head, in the chair he sat in while he bled to death?’
I know mentioning that the book has thriller elements may alarm my puzzle mystery fans, so I want to reassure you that these elements do not hinder the reader’s access to clues, some of which are in the Christie vein. Instead, I think the thriller-ish aspects are seen more in particular set scenes in the book, usually when Hugh has landed in the middle of something dangerous and is desperately trying to extricate himself. Masculine heroism is not idolised in this book, despite the thriller components, as Hugh is not your typical or overly successful thriller hero. Inspector Leigh, who is in charge of the police investigation, very much has a role in bringing everything together at the denouement. As to the ending I felt Margot Bennett showed some of Christianna Brand’s flair for solutions.
So all in all I thought this was a really good read. It once again shows that you cannot pigeonhole Bennett’s writing style and I think there is much here for the puzzle mystery fan reader to enjoy, without the characterisation being skimped on. Here’s hoping more Bennett titles make their way into the British Library Crime Classics series.
Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classics)