Every Inch a Lady (1977) by Joan Fleming

I decided this month to at least tackle one book which has been languishing on my TBR pile for too long. You know what it’s like, shinier and newer books kept tempting me away. Joan Fleming is an author I have been aware of for a while, but this is the first time I have tried any of her work.

Cover for Joan Fleming's Every Inch a Lady. It is the Murder Room edition, so is turquoise in colour with radiating circles and the title, author and a critic's quote are included in a circle in the middle.

Synopsis

‘The murder of young York Cragg, stabbed like a pin-cushion until the stuffing comes out, is the first of two violent killings. His twenty-four-year-old wife Easter, every inch a lady, refuses to move out of the house where he is found quite dead, and riddled with knife wounds. Meanwhile, her father-in-law, Jason Cragg, and an enigmatic new friend, Nathaniel Sapperton, try to unmask the killer. Clue number one is a photograph of an actress found in Cragg’s dresser drawer …’

Overall Thoughts

This novel also holds the subtitle: A Murder of the Fifties, so naturally as I started this book, I wondered what made it so. The mystery opens with PC Bacon struggling to mentally cast aside the murder he has just attended of York Cragg. It is a domestic scene where his wife takes away the tea she made for him, to keep it warm whilst he is processing his thoughts. This scene readily depicts and establishes stereotypical 1950s gender roles. When we get to York’s widow and her comfortable existence of ringing her best friend every day and then going out to have her hair done, go to the cinema, and have evenings out, we see the rich middle-class version of these roles too. Nevertheless, I think as the plot unfolds this seemingly stable image is undermined and overturned. The rose-tinted perception of the society at that time is fractured before being smashed, particularly regarding what women are capable of and what roles women can perform. More than one male character tries to take on the hero’s role, yet this has violent repercussions and furthermore, their attempts show up their personal failings and weaknesses. Interestingly, I would say that men are also shown as more sensitive as well, such as when Easter Cragg, York’s widow, is comfortable staying in her home after the murder of her husband, whilst her father-in-law experiences a great deal of unease whenever he visits.

Returning to the idea of the story being ‘a murder of the fifties’ there is a moment much later into the story in which a character rejects Easter’s way of centring her identity, or rather wanting others to centre her identity in the fact she is an orphan. She was raised by nuns, but also went to boarding and finishing school, so her upbringing was comfortable, but I feel like she uses this aspect of her life as a way of trying to engender sympathy for herself. However, one character is having none of it:

“Well, as I say, all this crap about foundlings. Move with the time girl. Every other home, these days, is a broken one […] Well, almost. The family as a unit doesn’t amount to anything now. All the high-falutin’ talk about security and happy -faces-round-the-fire […] a lot of hoo-ey. Children are brought up to consider no one but themselves and I dare say it will turn out to be as good a generation as we’ve ever had.”

I found this interesting as it is one of the fracturing moments of the narrative, casting 1950s society in a less picturesque, though not necessarily more judgemental, light.

Whilst PC Bacon is talking about the murder of York, he tells his wife: “He was savaged […] stabbed all over the back like he was a pin-cushion, and stuffing coming out” and perhaps in stereotypical comic fashion she replies: “Sam Bacon […] I don’t want no talk of that sort in this house, I don’t!” However, it is the way that this scene develops which interested me as he retorts:

“You’re a funny girl […] spend hours reading them shocking murder stories and then, when you get a bit of real life, you come all over nice. Upon my word, standing there looking at the horrible scene I thought this is like one of Doris’s bits of literature; Death of a Fat Man we’ll call this one.”

She counters this with: “But those stories I read are all a bit of fun. Things like that don’t happen.” And once more he disagrees: “Oh don’t they! […] Don’t they! Except that there’s one happened last night not a couple of miles from here!” But it is the last line in this passage which works so well:

‘Interest having worked its way through her prejudices, his wife asked: “Robbery with violence? Armed robbery, or what?”’

This is a great example of a crime writer commenting on the distinctions readers make between fact and fiction – how they are happy to read about imagined gruesome murders but might shy away from real crimes. Yet that last line also shows the tempting appeal of true crime.

PC Bacon is an engaging character, whose dialogue is excellent, and I felt he was a good vehicle for introducing the case and it is nice that he and his wife crop up later in the book. Chapter 2 shifts to the victim’s wife, Easter. She does not fit into the comfortable stereotype of the weeping widow. She seeks no support from her father-in-law, and we see little emotion from her. We learn much more about the inner workings of her father-in-law, Sir Jason, who is struggling with desire for his daughter-in-law. She sidesteps an early suggestion of his to move in with him and initially you could say he is set up as the pervy older male character, but surprisingly Fleming turns this upside down, not least when Easter begins to make advances on Jason, who becomes uncomfortable with this situation, despite also really wanting it. The picture gets reconfigured more than once, so I recommend not making fast and firm judgements in this story. How Jason will avoid temptation or succumb to it regarding Easter is a big a plot concern, at one point, as is solving the murder.

The narrative is not overly concerned with what the police are doing to track down the killer, and instead begins with focusing on Easter and Jason, who find a photo of a beautiful woman in York’s desk. Easter reveals that she was an old flame. Both suggest that she might be the killer and are intrigued to track her down, but they are also not keen on revealing this information to the police. This is partially due to fear of scandal, but for Jason at least he is reluctant to have such a beautiful woman hung, even if she is guilty. This is a change in viewpoint for Jason who earlier was out for the killer’s blood, and I wonder if the woman in the photo had not been so beautiful, would he still hold the same position? Suffice to say his anti-capital punishment stance, a pertinent theme for the 1950s, is somewhat wobbly.

At this stage in the mystery I was hooked, partially because of Fleming’s prose style, but also by the fact that the author does not make it too obvious where the plot will go next. Unfortunately, this level of engagement was not maintained, and the book increasingly lost my interest. One of those reasons is Easter whose growing reluctance to help the police and not act in a way which hinders the case becomes weirdly repellent. She is not how you would expect a widow to react, which is kind of a subversive text in a way, but as a character to follow around, she just becomes annoying.

Part way through the story, a new character enters the mix, Nathanial Sapperton (Is the surname a play on the name of the author of the Bulldog Drummond books, Sapper?) and he lives in a flat overlooking Easter’s home. He wants to ingratiate himself into Easter’s life and I was curious as to how he would fit into the narrative. I hoped he would complicate the crime plot, but this was not to be as he moves into the role of the amateur sleuth, with personal reasons of his own for doing so. However, his entrance into the plot and the way his actions become the central focus, is one of the novels’ biggest weaknesses as he is an unappealing amateur sleuth to follow, and his sleuthing actions are not interesting. It does not help that he has a tendency to kiss Easter and other women a lot, despite apparently being a happily married man. His approach to sleuthing is haphazard and sometimes reminiscent of a bull in a china shop. The large chunk of the book concerning Sapperton’s exploits were rather dull in my opinion and my interest in the story took a nosedive. Despite all his efforts the case is not solved by him, but by another and this is one of the most pleasing bits of the book.

If we had been given more convincing alternative suspects, then the killer in this book would have been less glaringly obvious and the red herrings the mystery undoubtedly has, would have been fully effective. As it is you will identify the murderer soon in this one and there is little to distract you, and this is the other biggest weakness of the book.

I like some aspects of Fleming’s writing, her prose style, her overturning of social and gender expectations and some of her more minor characters like the Bacons were my favourites, but I am not sure this plot showcases her talents at their best. After the opening third, the plot did not live up to the expectations that the opening had set up. Everything becomes much more predictable than I anticipated and yes Easter really got on my wick!

Rating: 3.25/5

See also: Moira at Clothes in Books also reviewed this title.

6 comments

  1. I was glad you read this too, I was intrigued by it but not wholly won over, and I think you felt the same for slightly different reasons! When I’d finished it I was very curious to know what others thought, but couldn’t find any reviews. Far from perfect, but it did stick in my mind, and I liked the way the investigation went off in unexpected directions. You have reminded me that I thought I would like to try something else by her.

    Liked by 1 person

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