Today’s read’s certainly raises the question of how important a novel’s title is, as this one by Cannan is not going to be winning any prizes for being the most interesting or original. This is not my first read by the author, so in some ways the title was less important, I was more interested at the time of purchase, in buying the book because of who wrote it and what it was about. However, I wonder if the same could be said for those new to Cannan, now and when she began first writing mysteries. Would such a bland title encourage you to take a punt on an author you hadn’t tried before?
This was Cannan’s first Inspector Guy Northeast mystery, but I have read Death at the Dog (1940), which is the second and last Northeast mystery, as well as Murder Included (1950), which is from another series, featuring Inspector Ronald Price. In the introduction to the Rue Morgue Press reprint, Tom and Enid Schantz, record that ‘Cannan’s daughter Josephine Pullein-Thompson, herself the author of three crime novels, said her mother dropped Northeast as her sleuth “because he was too nice. She much preferred her hate relationship with the awful Price,” possibly because “it was too difficult to write about good or nice people.”’ I thought this was an intriguing idea, as I know I am a reader who can struggle to get fully engaged with novels in which the characters are all out and out unpleasant. Writers would you agree? And readers what do you prefer?
‘When murder strikes in the quiet English countryside only Inspector Guy Northeast of Scotland Yard sees the vital clue. When Delia Cathcart and Major Willoughby disappear from their quiet English village one Saturday morning in July 1937, it looks like a simple case of a frustrated spinster running off for a bit of fun with a straying husband. But as the hours turn into days, Inspector Guy Northeast begins to suspect that she may have been the victim of foul play. On the surface, Delia appeared to be a quite ordinary middle-aged Englishwoman content to spend her evenings with her sisters and mother and her days with her beloved horses. But Delia led a secret life — and Guy turns up more than one person who would like to see Delia dead. Except Delia wasn’t the only person with a secret…’
Cannan’s mystery commences with the widowed Mrs Carthcart and her three grown up daughters (who are in their late 30s and 40s) spending a leisurely afternoon together. An idyllic scene of a harmonious household is presented to us, and you can’t help but think they seem to get on too well. It’s all a bit too picture perfect. What tensions lie beneath the surface? Well, you won’t get the answer to that one until much later in the book and unfortunately it is something which is told to us rather than something which is shown.
The Carthcart household (whose finances rely on a past in biscuit making) is officially liked by the well-to-do, but privately not so much, given that they are “new money”. However, those below the gentry class more openly express their low opinion of the women, with the criticism centring on them being ‘old cats’ and being unmarried. It is these moments that you can feel some sympathy for the Cathcarts. Yet interestingly, the narrative shows us through the eyes of some of the married women characters the many downsides to being married and these women conversely seem to suggest that being single is a far happier state. So, in this respect I think Cannan complicates her depiction of women.
However, I have to admit I didn’t like the Carthcarts either!! Just having to read about them peeved me no end. I can’t imagine having to work for them or stay with them for a weekend party. The daughters are sickeningly dutiful and solicitous of each other, to the point that each time an action must be taken, such as passing the teapot, opening a door, or getting a book, there is a grating chorus of women offering to do the task instead of someone else doing it. It becomes wearing due to its excessiveness and I was marginally relieved when the story took its focus elsewhere. I say marginally as you would be hard pressed to find a likeable suspect/witness character in this mystery! Mrs Willoughby is one of these unlikeable individuals and from this brief exchange she has with DI Northeast you can see why her husband might have wanted to leave her…
“Oh, but, Mr Northeast, think what London could give you. Think of the marvellous people you can meet there – painters, novelists, musicians! Think of the marvellous parties you might be invited to…”
“Not me. I’m a policeman.”
“Oh, well, I was thinking of myself really. You see Mr Northeast, I’m intelligent. If I were only in touch with thinking people…”
Yet another Ancient Mariner, Guy thought, as he edged towards the door.
Believe me there are much longer examples of why you would not want to get stuck next to Mrs Willoughby at a dinner party!
Whilst 1930s detective fiction might be famous for its aristocratic policemen and gentleman sleuths, Guy Northeast is cut from a different pattern:
‘Guy Northeast was the fifth child and third son of a Wiltshire farmer. For three generations, the Northeasts had farmed Thorn End. Roger, the eldest son, would follow his father; Jim was developing a successful sideline in breeding and breaking hunters; Pam managed the poultry; Dinah ran the dairy; and when Guy, at the age of sixteen, drank two glasses of port after Christmas dinner and suddenly found he had courage to ask his father if he could go to Canada and be a Mounted Policeman, he was firmly told there was plenty for him to do on the farm. Guy at sixteen had been big, slow and speechless – a perfectly helpless person in spite of his broad shoulders, iron biceps and huge red hands. He had given up his dream of tracking desperate criminals over snow-covered canyons, and had settled down to do all the jobs that were beneath Roger’s dignity, spoiled Dinah’s hands, got on Pam’s nerves, or bored Jim. After fours of it, he threw a turnip at Roger and went to stay with his Aunt Millie while the storm died down.’
I think in some ways Northeast is the most interesting character of the book and I enjoyed having a sleuth who was not typical for the period, as he is not known for his sparkling wit, nor intellect and he is not perceived as being part of the gentry by other characters in the story. Instead he is a detective who is quite put upon by his witnesses and superiors and even his act of veg throwing rebellion adds a comic note, which perhaps reflects how he is a sleuth that other characters do not take seriously nor really respect. In contrast to fictional detectives built along the lines of Sherlock Holmes, Northeast’s approach to sleuthing is slower and more painstaking:
‘Guy disliked nothing so much as being pushed along. He deplored the magic which, fed on fiction and the press, had attached itself to the name of Scotland Yard. He considered that a long steady pull took you up the hill much better than a series of spectacular dashes. Gently did it, but no sooner was the name of Scotland Yard mentioned, than people expected you to produce some obscure information acquired on travels that a policeman’s pay couldn’t run to, or a piece of scientific knowledge never included in the curriculum of a grammar school, which would instantly solve their problem. Well, one could only do one’s best…’
I think out of all the characters in this novel, Northeast is probably the one you have the most sympathy with. From the get-go when he enters the story we are made aware that he is currently not in his bosses’ good books, having recently mucked up an investigation:
‘He was transferred to the C. I. D. and luck was with him at first, but since he had been promoted to be Detective-Inspector, it had deserted him; he had bungled the Oughborough case, and believed it wasn’t by chance that since then only dull routine enquiries seemed to come his way.’
I think this places Guy Northeast in a more vulnerable position.
From a puzzle point of view, I don’t think this book is particularly satisfying. The investigation is rather dull and the key way of identifying the culprit comes out of nowhere. This clue needed to be used or filtered into the story in a more effective manner and looking back at the story it felt like is a case where there was not much evidence to go on. Fortunately, for our police detective, the killer’s diary takes the place of a verbal confession and fills in the large gaps. The choice of murderer is not a bad one, but they needed a better story to surround them. The ending comes rather like a whimper.
Oh, dear my second poor read in a row. Hope I can break the cycle with my next read!
Well, if a character is utterly repugnant, I will be rooting for him or her to be the next murderee. There must be something attractive about the investigator, even if it is only his/her commitment to obtaining justice for the victim.
haha I think in this book you might have wanted an entire neighbourhood massacre lol!
Ouch! Thank you for the warning.
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In a way the title is interesting because it’s so strange, in terms of why anyone would choose that for a title. I have a book called Police at the Station and They Don’t Look Friendly, which may be even weirder.
On a slight tangent, I wish publishers had never changed titles of British books for the American market. It’s almost never necessary or an improvement.
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Ah reverse psychology, make the title so boring and bland that it becomes noticeable!
Thinking of Christie’s book title changes, I think some did seem more unnecessary than others, such as the change to The Sittaford Mystery title.
My very favorite offbeat title for a mystery is Summertime, the Cats Are Bored. A translation of a good French procedural.
And yes that abysmal habit of changing book titles has been responsible for my buying any number of duplicate books.
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That is definitely a fun title with the cats in!
[…] familiar than others. Yet surprisingly quite a few of these turned out to be dud reads, such as They Rang Up the Police (1939) by Joanna Cannan, The Mad Hatter Mystery (1933) by John Dickson Carr and Harriette […]