Following on from my previous post I am reviewing another author for the first time today. Marjorie Bremner was in Chicago in 1916 and her work background was in psychology (which she studied at university). My edition is the Moonstone Press reprint, which comes with a short introduction, which mentions that in WW2 Bremner ‘worked as a psychologist in the woman’s branch of the United States Naval Reserve’ and that in 1946 she began working on a PhD in political science. This necessitated a time in London. She went on to become a Hansard Society researcher. She only wrote one other crime novel, Murder Amid Proofs (1955).
‘Hugh Mason was the kind of man it was very easy to hate, if you were not susceptible to his particular kind of charm. He had of necessity hurt a lot of people on his way up. Taciturn and enigmatic, his extended family did not really know him well. At a weekend gathering for his 60th birthday, it slowly becomes apparent that Hugh plans to give substantial funding and support to a new right-wing political group called the Freemen. The next morning Hugh is dead of poisoning and the evidence suggests a family member must be responsible. But who among them would risk such a move, given that Hugh provides for all?’
Very quickly into starting this book I wondered if Bremner’s psychology background had an impact on her writing style, as one of the first things I noted about the story was the neutral observational tone of the narrator, Christina. For example, the novel opens with quite an acceptance, almost, of her uncle Hugh being a domineering businessman/ patriarch. The dominance is seen as a functional characteristic. This is not to say that the narrator agrees with and heartily endorses everything her uncle does, but there is a distinct lack of questioning or challenging what he does:
‘My Uncle Hugh was the kind of man it was very easy to hate, if you were not susceptible to his particular kind of charm. He had of necessity hurt a lot of people on his way up, and he had learned to be tough. Perhaps he always had been and had no need to learn. A man does not leave school at fourteen, make a fortune by forty, and go on to become a skilful and powerful politician without ruthlessness.’
It is not unheard of to have a murder mystery victim who is a self-made man with working class roots, but I felt this aspect was really emphasised in this book’s country house owner. There is a great deal of emphasising his achievements in bringing up all the family financially. Unusually, the victim is not introduced as personal tyrant, as he probably would have been in a Georgette Heyer novel, and as such I felt Bremner’s portrayal contrasted with earlier GAD fiction. Although I did wonder if it is just the fact the writer has such an impersonal narrator, that any personal villainy of the victim is not effectively conveyed to us?
Christina, in the first chapter, reveals that she has been overworking and is suffering from emotional exhaustion, which is exacerbated by her short-lived ill-advised marriage (which ended during the WW2 due to her husband dying in action). We get lines such as this to communicate this difficult situation:
‘I don’t know how a normally effective person would have reacted to Raikes’ fears and suspicions, or how I myself would have reacted had the episode taken place while I was still at Cambridge, before I met Simon. I think that at that time I might have been able to cope with it fairly well. But my brief marriage with Simon had paralysed my ability to deal easily with things.’
This example and other longer ones gave the story quite a clinical voice in the way the narrator explains her problems in a matter of fact way. The clinical tone appealed to me overly and I felt it adversely impacted the characterisation of the book as a whole. The characters did not come to life for me, nor did the narrative encourage me to care for any of them.
Politics as motive in classic crime fiction can be something of a B-plot trope, which the reader is not meant to take very seriously when solving the crime. This is not the case here where it is at the very heart of the story. I did wonder if Bremner attempted some political satire, such as on the nature of political speeches:
‘They had a few points, and they each made the same ones, several times. But so cleverly were their speeches written that I don’t suppose one person in ten realised that all the speakers had said the same things.’
However, the lack of opinion in the narrative voice undermined it if satire was being aimed at.
The political party that the victim was getting more involved with is called The Freeman of Britain, which causes his family grave concern. The group are shown to have similarities with 1930s Nazism and unlike in P. G. Wodehouse’s fictional Black Shorts fascist organisation, such a group is not treated as a joke, (no doubt due to what went on during WW2). It is something which causes fear and anxiety, not least because in this case the organisation are smart enough to distinguish themselves from Nazism on a superficial level. However, once again the author fails to effectively communicate the characters’ frightened feelings. There is a degree of monotone.
This is also unfortunate when it comes to the early reveal of uncle Hugh’s death, as it is very undramatic. It came across to me as a weak use of understatement, as the narrative itself lacks the vibrancy to show it up. Moreover, there is little to no specific quarrels or flare ups prior to the death depicted on the page, so there is nothing for the reader’s mind to work on, in particular there is minimal dialogue between the narrator and family members/suspects. Once again this gives the reader little to go on.
The narrator gets a further strike against her, as her apathy and lethargic indecisiveness means she lies to the police and withholds information for a while. She is stubborn and acquiescing at the wrong moments and all in all this made the narrator tiresome at times. One wonders if this character feature was used as a delaying tactic in the narrative, as near the end she becomes the worm who turns and is aiding the police here, there and everywhere. This transformation didn’t feel entirely creditable. The solution is arrived at through the police detective stirring up so much angst and trouble within the suspect group that the killer cracks. This was not a satisfying ending, and I also did not enjoy how much new information the solution brings up, which the detective uncovered off the page. So unfortunately, not such a great read today.