The Intellectual Life. An Unsuitable Job for a Woman? E. C. R. Lorac Responds to Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935) in Post After Post-Mortem (1936)

It’s about a week to go until the latest British Library Crime Classic title is due to be released, so I thought I would look at it today.

Synopsis

‘The Surrays and their five children form a prolific writing machine, with scores of treatises, reviews and crime thrillers published under their family name. Following a rare convergence of the whole household at their Oxfordshire home, Ruth – middle sister who writes ‘books which are just books’ – decides to spend some weeks there recovering from the pressures of the writing life while the rest of the brood scatter to the winds again. Their next return is heralded by the tragic news that Ruth has taken her life after an evening at the Surrays’ hosting a set of publishers and writers, one of whom is named as Ruth’s literary executor in the will she left behind. Despite some suspicions from the family, the verdict at the inquest is suicide – but when Ruth’s brother Richard receives a letter from the deceased which was delayed in the post, he enlists the help of CID Robert Macdonald to investigate what could only be an ingeniously planned murder.’

Overall Thoughts

At the close of his introduction, Martin Edwards writes:

‘As regards motivation and theme, there are one or two moments in the story which strike me as faintly reminiscent of Dorothy L. Sayer’s classic novel Gaudy Night, published the previous year. Even though the two books are in the most respects very different, I can’t help wondering if the earlier novel prompted Lorac to explore for herself the implications of integrity and the corrosive effects of excessive devotion to the deceased.’

When I first read this, I found it to be an interesting point, but I didn’t particularly intend on writing much, if anything, about it. However, as I read the book and when I came to compose my review, I discovered that the more I thought about it, the more I could see Lorac’s book as an unexpected response to the theme of women in society, which Gaudy Night (1935), places centre stage. Lorac does not make it as prominent a theme, but it is equally not one you cannot ignore. I have to admit to making the error of assuming that a female writer would write a corroborating response to Gaudy Night, rather than a more complicated and antithetical one.

Instead of an exclusively cloistered female university college environment, Lorac chooses a high achieving literary and academic family: two parents, three grown up daughters and two adult sons. This family setup put me in mind of Ronald Knox’s siblings and parents, who were similarly gifted.

Post After Post-Mortem begins with two chapters, which are quite reminiscent in tone and style to Sayers, and they introduce us to the family unit, indicating the fields of expertise they occupy and the giftings they possess. Writing is a common skill between them, and the youngest Naomi has recently excelled in her degree. It can begin to feel like the more sombre and serious version of the parodied family newsletter that Adrian Plass wrote.

Yet from the get-go, despite their successes, both female and male voices try to discourage Naomi from taking up any career in writing. There are surface level jokes that there are too many books published by the family as it is, and librarians will get upset having to not mix them up, but there is a more serious vein of criticism which is mined from time to time in the narrative and it centres upon the concerns some family members have about the mental wellbeing of Ruth.

Her brother, a psychologist, says of her: ‘She wouldn’t admit it, but it’s a greater strain for a woman to live up to a peak of intellectual endeavour than it is for a man. Ruth never condescends to the commonplace.’ When I first read this, aside from making a mental raspberry at the character, I thought perhaps this was just one of those ill-advised comments from male characters which we see in interwar crime fiction. It does not mean that the writer themselves endorse that viewpoint. But then I was quite surprised to read Naomi supporting this stance. Richard is discussing the problem with Naomi, that both she and Ruth are in love with the same man and Richard initially tries to persuade her to stand aside, as Ruth is in greater “psychological need” for marrying at her older age. Granted Naomi is somewhat irked by this attitude, yet her response seems to turn the criticism inwards:

‘Isn’t it awful? […] Why didn’t somebody warn us about the dangers of intellectuality? Judy was the only sensible one of the family. She burnt her manuscript and had a baby instead! Ruth ought to have got married young like that! I see all the awfulness of complex-ridden middle age in front of me…’

The notion set up here, of the intellectual life being harmful to women psychologically, is one which Sayers questions and challenges. Why does Lorac bring it up if she is not going to undermine it? Is it because it is a sentiment she endorsed herself? Or is it an idea of the time that that she wanted to reflect in her characters? What response did she want her readers to have to this? These were the sorts of questions that ran through my mind when thinking about this passage and yes, I might have been overthinking it a tad…

In the above passage Naomi is almost angry that she was not told of these so-called problems of being “intellectual”, yet they sit uncomfortably alongside the fact that all the Surrays’ daughters – Ruth, Naomi and Judith followed a career/path which they enjoyed and were good at. But Naomi seems to sweep all of that away at this point and her remaining page time is so small that we never see it recovered. What are we to make of this? A contrasting quote from Gaudy Night, which sprang to mind at this point was one Harriet makes when asked why she keeps writing mystery novels, after she was wrongfully arrested for a murder in another book:

‘I know what you’re thinking – that anybody with proper sensitive feeling would rather scrub floors for a living. But I should scrub floors very badly, and I write detective stories rather well. I don’t see why proper feeling should prevent me from doing my proper job.’

Here, Harriet acknowledges what she is good at and enjoys doing and she seems to suggest that regardless of social level awkwardness, it is a path she should continue following. She seems far more confident of her purpose in life than Naomi.

Conversely, the solution to academic-achievement angst, depicted in Lorac’s book is matrimony, which we have seen in Naomi’s dialogue, but is also reinforced in Richard’s when he declares to her: ‘produce the right young man and I’ll urge you into matrimony at top speed, and congratulate you on an infant – in wedlock or out of it! – as a most desirable appendage – or antidote – to your degree.’ Marriage then is seen as a way of curing any psychological ills created by doing a qualification. This opposes Gaudy Night which voices the opinion that work, and marriage can complement each other. To be balanced I should point out that as the plot progresses and Inspector Macdonald’s investigation develops, you could argue that the younger academic males begin to show signs of psychological strain, but to be honest it doesn’t really outweigh the more dominant ideas mentioned above.

As I quoted earlier, Martin mentions how Lorac ‘explore[s] for herself the […] corrosive effects of excessive devotion to the deceased.’ This is a prominent theme in the novel, and it is one which hugely shapes the direction of the plot, which I will talk about later. However, it is also another arena in which the role of women crops up. Richard’s motivation is hardly heinous, as he only wants to spare his parents as much distress as possible, but his way of achieving this goal is to blanket and therefore smother any information which might raise the level of public scrutiny higher. Furthermore, Richard’s language with the weekend male guests is quite matter of fact and unemotional, and their unspoken acquiescence follows as they decide, off page, for themselves to hold back certain pieces of information, but when it comes to Richard’s discussion with his younger sister, Naomi, his manner of speaking to her, is arguably much more manipulative. He can see how upset she is, but rather than encourage her to speak, even if it was only to him, he essentially emotionally blackmails her into silence. It is not long afterwards that she is conveniently packed off to the Hebrides and at one crucial moment in the narrative has gone offshore on a boat trip.

The author seems to go to quite some lengths to keep her women off stage or only on stage in a way that any threat of independence is neutralised. The mother, the least “intellectual” of the lot has the most page time, but in her role of grieving mother she is presented as a non-threatening and non-challenging female figure. In contrast to Gaudy Night, Post After Post-Mortem, is a very male character and male voice dominated story and since Ruth gets so little page time herself and not much of her speech is directly quoted, we are reliant on the myopic male gaze for our impressions of her.

That said it is ironic to say this is a male voice dominated mystery, since the male characters spend most of their time refusing to talk or keep saying “ask so and so,” only for so and so to get taken out of action, and even when so and so recovers they still decide to remain schtum. The motivation for this silence is mostly due to the characters wanting to protect the reputation of Ruth and her family members’ feelings. Inspector Macdonald himself says at one point that ‘I think that you’re all so obsessed with keeping her memory sacrosanct that a small point like discovering who murdered her seems immaterial to you.’ To be honest you can’t blame him for wanting to ‘get hold of his various witnesses and shake them as a terrier shakes a rat, in the endeavour to get the truth out of them.’

However, the question which arose for me was: How much reticence on the part of the suspects is comfortable or bearable for the reader? I don’t think there is a universal answer to this which can be applied to all mystery books. For me, it depends on what other information the police can access, how long the book is overall and what other incidences are there to fill in the time. But in the case of Lorac’s book I think there was too much suspect reticence and yes you know when Naomi gets sent off to Scotland that she is taking away a lot of useful information with her! The pacing of this mystery is reined in significantly by this problem, as the investigation can only move at a slower speed as there is not enough new information to fuel its forward propulsion.

This is perhaps more of an issue in this book as it is 300 pages long, which I thought for the size of plot was too much. It could have done with being trimmed down. The first 2/3s of the novel are rather slow paced, but in the final 100 or so, Lorac seems to go into plot incident overdrive, as further attempted crimes and the pursuit of a suspect take place. I am not always that keen on this type of structure in mystery stories as it can be a consequence of a book which has hitherto been too slow and then the writer suddenly has to crank up the pace in order for the detective to reasonably arrive at a solution.

I think this is a pity as in a shorter format this plot would be a very good one, as Lorac’s killer is far from conventional in their murder scheme and the motivation for it is an interesting one. I also like how this book is arguably a bibliomystery. Aside from the victim being a writer, the first biblio-clue in the mystery is the letter that Richard receives, which provides the bombshell to this character that maybe his sister did not commit suicide. As Macdonald’s investigation progresses more written material surfaces and some of it has more than one interpretation. It is not just the words that are important but also the paper the communications have been written on. Dare I say it but there is a scene in which he is rather Inspector French like! I don’t want to go into more detail about this aspect, to avoid revealing spoilers, but I think a case can be made for this story being a bibliomystery.

The issues of pacing did affect my final rating, but for those who enjoy a slower read and/or want to compare the story with Gaudy Night, then this is definitely a book to try.

Rating: 3.75/5

Source: Review Copy (British Library Crime Classic)

11 comments

  1. I’m a Lorac enthusiast, as you know, but I wonder whether my depressed attention span would last this out. Maybe it will have to wait for a time I have less tendency to “see squirrels.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well books don’t have expiry dates so it will be there when you are ready for it. If you can not only hack Michael Innes’ work, but also enjoy it too, then I think you’ll be fine with this one!

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  2. This is one Lorac I’ll have to avoid, although I’ve enjoyed some of her other books. It bothers me when a woman who is having success in an “un-feminine” field makes blanket statements about how women should avoid such fields. And the idea of having a child as an “antidote” to intellectualism (or anything else)? …blechhh. (If I had a brother like Richard, I might really be tempted to suicide.) If Naomi were as bright and well-read as she was supposed to be, she would have been aware of the “danger” of being too intellectual, from the “warnings” of just about every male writer in history (and some female writers too). Give me “Gaudy Night” any day!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It would be interesting to know from letters or a diary what Lorac’s thoughts on gender roles were, as it can be hard when reading a book to separate what her characters might think and what she herself thought. The two are not automatically the same.

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  3. I have a rare Carol Carnac mystery I’m reviewing soon. Lorac in her Carnac guise strikes me as a contender for the title of Queen of the Humdrum Mystery. She definitely belongs in that camp. The book I read was like a John Rhode detective novel complete with ultra-bizarre murder means incorporating technical wizardry. Emphasis was on the how and the why of the crime and little to do with characters, though there were at least two very well drawn supporting players. I like her Julian Rivers more than dull as ditch water Macdonald. Rivers has sense of humor and a bit more personality than Macdonald who seems to me like a ghost of a man.

    Liked by 1 person

    • A rare Carol Carnac sounds intriguing! I think I have only tried one Carnac from the BLCC series so it is hard for me to say which penname/ series sleuth I prefer best. I find the Lorac’s can be variable in quality. I have enjoyed her use of wartime settings though. But I agree it is hard to say whether Inspector Alleyn or Inspector Macdonald is the most vibrant!

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