Tag Archives: murder

Devon: scene of two crimes

The drought has turned fields yellow in Devon, so that with the dark hedge lines and trees in full leaf the landscape resembles those railway posters, and the covers of murder mysteries.

I read two such novels with A DEVON MYSTERY writ large on their covers. They have these things in common:

  • They are both set in Devon, but Devon in the past – in the 1930s and the 1950s.
  • The murder victims are both very unpleasant
  • The cases are solved by the writers’ favourite detectives.
  • They have been reprinted in the British Library Crime Classic series, with their familiar railway poster covers – one is actually from Somerset.

I’m not a great reader of crime classics and chose these because they featured Devon where I live. But as I want my friends and neighbours to live peaceably in Devon, I won’t be reading any more for a while.

Murder in the Mill-Race by ECR Lorac (1952)

The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson-Carr (1942)

Murder in the Mill-Race 

This Devon mystery is set in a village where everyone closes ranks to protect the murderer. The horrible Sister Monica who runs the local children’s home, is found dead in the village stream, but no one is saying anything helpful about it. Dr Farens and his wife are newly arrived in the village and at the start of the novel we follow their amateur explorations and discussions of the event. 

Later Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Macdonald is brought in to solve the case, together with Detective Inspector Reeves. In the process of their enquiries Sister Monica is found to be neither a religious nor a nursing sister, and that over many years she has been controlling everyone through knowing their secrets, spreading stories and extorting money. Everyone hated her, and yet the villagers will not break their silence about the identity of the culprit and are not averse to providing a false clue or two. Of course, the Scotland Yard team crack the case in the end.

The village I live in bears no resemblance to Milham on the Moor. We have no mill, no children’s home, no lady of the manor ruling over everyone, and no country doctor’s practice (but we do have a modern Health Centre). I have lived here for nine years, and as far as I know there has been no murder here in that time. The village does however have a strong connection to The Hound of the Baskervilles, but that is another matter.

ECR Lorac was the pen name of Edith Caroline Rivett (1894-1958) who was a prolific writer of crime fiction from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Murder in the Mill-Race by ECR Lorac, first published in 1952. British Library Crime Classics series edition published in 2019. 252pp

The Seat of the Scornful

Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. [Psalm 1]

We meet a rather self-satisfied High Court judge, Mr Justice Ireton, as he sentences a man to death for the murder of his wife. He appears to enjoy a game of cat-and-mouse for he acknowledges to his chess-playing friend Dr Fell, that the man will have his sentence reduced on his recommendation at a later date. He has no sympathy for criminals. Dr Fell asks this rather unpleasant man, 

‘Can’t you ever see yourself in the position of the man in the dock?’ (32)

Drawing on the game of chess he has just won the judge explains why he behaves as he does when sentencing.

‘It consists in letting your opponent think he‘s perfectly safe, winning hands down and then catching him in a corner. You would probably call it the cat-and-mouse gambit’ (34)

He sits foursquare in the seat of the scornful. Then Judge Ireton is found in his home with a revolver and a dead man on the carpet in front of him. And on this occasion it looks like he is guilty. The dead man is a charming rogue, but one with a highly developed desire for vengeance. He is also described by a character as an Eye-talian, which is obnoxious, but in 1942, when the novel was published, Britain and the US was at war with Italy.

The setting is the coast of Devon, in easy reach of Tiverton and some fictional holiday spots. The local Assizes having finished, the judge has rented a bungalow here for the summer, which is somewhat isolated from the nearest village. It is here that the murder victim is found. The isolated road, the small town where people are known, the local resort are the backdrop to the crime.

An intricate plot involves the judge’s daughter – it is her fiancé who is found dead – the judge’s mentee a barrister called Fred Barlow, a young woman in love with him and the good doctor who is helping Inspector Graham to solve the case. There is a revolver, sand in the wrong place, a disappearing tramp, a stuffed moose’s head and a pool party. Dr Fell sets up a cat and mouse game and entraps the murderer.

The author was an American, married to an English woman and he spent much of his life in Britain. Martin Edwards, in his Introduction, suggests that this crime novel explores the moral aspects of murder: can murder ever be justified? Is weakness an excuse for crime? It is not your usual locked room mystery.

The Seat of the Scornful by John Dickson-Carr first published in 1942 and reissued in the British Library Crime Classics series in 2022. 236pp

Related Post

KaggsysBookishRamblings reviewed this earlier this month. She is full of praises for the intricate plot and is particularly impressed by the well-developed characterisation, which contrasts with many crime novels.

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The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman

Is there a new genre of fiction? Or is it just a new take on an old theme in which a spirited older woman outwits jobsworths and solves mysteries that have escaped the usual investigations. Often the older women live in care homes or retirement accommodation. And they do their sleuthing in the company of others.

The Thursday Murder Club is a good addition to this genre if it exists. It is written with very little condescension (only occasionally referring to old people as pensioners). The older characters are not technophobes, full of nostalgia or the butt of the author’s jokes. The two key women in this novel are alert, healthy, imaginative, resourceful and above all experienced.

This is the 52nd in the series of older women in fiction which I promote to make older women more visible. You can find the complete list of 100+ suggested books with links to the reviews here.

The Thursday Murder Club

Richard Osman enjoys the characters he has created and he indulges his creativity in a very convoluted plot, which requires a fair amount of ingenuity and many deaths to resolve. He relishes the activities in the Coopers Chase retirement community, all their clubs, (car parking management, stamp collecting, book group etc) healthy activities (swimming pool, bowls, Pilates, gym), rivalries and friendships. One of the clubs has been formed by Elizabeth and Penny. Penny is a retired Inspector from the local Kent Constabulary but now lost to dementia, and Elizabeth and the two men in the club, a retired psychiatrist and trade unionist, recruit Joyce to join them.

Elizabeth has had some kind of highly skilled career in an unspecified and secret organisation. She is whip smart, a lateral thinker and she possesses many connections from her former life, which become very useful when the club and the police (and the plot) hit a difficulty, you know, identifying the age of bones they find, or looking at CCTV to find someone. Joyce, who is a fairly new resident, introduces us to Elizabeth.

Well, let’s start with Elizabeth, shall we? And see where that gets us?
I knew who she was of course, everybody here knows Elizabeth. She has one of the three bed flats in Larkin Court. It’s the one on the corner with the decking? Also, I was once on a quiz team with Stephen, who, for a number of reasons, is Elizabeth’s third husband. (3)

Joyce keeps a diary, which forms part of the novel. She was a nurse and as a widow is rather lonely and would like male company.  She is happy to join the club, finding it all rather exciting. Her function is to ask all the questions that need to be answered on behalf of the reader. Her pursuit of Bernard, another resident of Coopers Chase is not pathetic as some writers would be tempted to frame it. In fact there are few unpleasant or pathetic characters in this novel. Those that are tend to die.

Elizabeth interrupts their investigation into an old case of Penny’s when the man who built Coopers Chase is murdered after a public argument with his partner, who own the company that manages it. No-one seems to be sorry for Tony Curran. Suspicion falls on Ian Ventham, his partner until he dies in the car park while a protest is going on about his plans to dig up the graveyard. Other people become involved: a nun, a past-it boxer, a priest, a flower seller, a widower, a vet and the police. And so it goes on. There are several more suspicious deaths to be solved before the Thursday Murder Club can feel their job is done.

I read this book when I was stuck inside with a broken ankle during Lockdown3. It was ideal reading material for my situation. As he says, it’s his first and, so far, his best book. Thanks to  Jane for the loan of her copy.

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, published in 2020 by Penguin/Viking. 244pp

Other books in this genre of transgressing older women

Three Things about Elsie by Joanna Cannon 

The Little Old Lady who Broke all the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg 

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

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We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Earlier this year I posted a themed review on the subject of outsiders in fiction on Bookword. I invited further suggestions. This novel, We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, was recommended by another blogger and lent to me by a friend. The author is popular with some readers and bloggers, but I have to admit that I have not read anything else by Shirley Jackson, although I knew her name. It’s a very dark book, with plenty of violence, magic, and wicked acts together with some humorous incidents.

 

We have always lived in the Castle

The novel is narrated by Merricat who is 18 and lives with her sister Constance who is somewhat older. Together with Uncle Julien they live in a big house, separate from the village in Vermont. He is old and infirm and requires a wheelchair and does not appear to see Merricat. He was damaged in an arsenic attack six years previously which killed the other members of the family: the sisters’ parents and brother, and Julian’s wife. It is pretty clear from the first page who it was that carried out the murders. Constance was tried and acquitted. It also becomes evident that the truth is known by both sisters, although they do not refer to it until there is a crisis.

Since her trial Constance is a recluse, and people in the village continue to believe she was the murderer despite the acquittal. The villagers dislike the Blackwood family. The father had sealed off a path and the whole estate. Now Merricat must go to the village twice a week to collect supplies. The trio live in a very restricted and routinised way: days for going to the village, or dusting; meals prepared by Constance; Merricat not allowed to touch food or to do various things. She behaves more like an 8 year old than a person of 18.

Their routine is interrupted when cousin Charles arrives hoping to find some of the family money. He begins to dominate the household, and to sway Constance. He suggests that Julien should be in a home and Merricat disciplined or something worse.

Merricat practices some of her magic to get rid of him. She has already protected their estate by burying certain items and by nailing a book to a tree. When the book falls down she knows that their lives are going to be disturbed. She tries to get rid of Charles by ignoring him, by being rude, by disturbing his belongings. Ultimately a fire is started by his pipe in his bedroom and the upper floors of the house are destroyed. The crowd on onlookers trash the house and its contents in one of the most horrific scenes of the book. 

Above it all, most horrible, was the laughter. I saw one of the Dresden figures thrown and break against the porch rail, and the other fell unbroken and rolled along the grass. I heard Constance’s harp go over with a musical cry, and a sound which I knew was a chair being smashed against the wall. 
“Listen,” said Charles from somewhere, “will a couple of you guys help me with this safe?”
Then through the laughter, someone began, “Merricat, said Constance, would you like a cup of tea?” It was rhythmic and insistent. I am on the moon, I thought, please let me be on the moon. Then I heard the sound of dishes smashing and at that minute realised that we stood outside the tall windows of the dining room and they were coming very close. (106)

Uncle Julien dies of a heart attack in the excitement. After the crowds have gone, Merricat and Constance clear up as best they can and continue living in the house that now resembles a castle. When the young women have remade a home in the ruins of the house the villagers gradually begin to leave presents of food in expiation. Charles returns to try to get back in the house, but the sisters ignore him, and he leaves. A new set of quiet routines is established and the two sisters do not have to engage with anyone.

It’s a very black story, some of it funny. The ostracism by the village, the othering of Constance and Merricat is a reminder of some dark social evil. In part it is a justification of the seclusion sought by the Blackwood sisters, and is thought to represent Shirley Jackson’s experience of living in North Bennington, Vermont with her family. 

The co-dependence of the sisters, and the determination of Merricat to control everything are also unnerving. As is their obsession with food. 

Shirley Jackson

Born in 1916, Shirley Jackson died in her sleep in 1965, not long after the publication of We have always lived in the Castle. It was her last book. She had published six novels as well as around 200 short stories and also earned money from her journalism. 

It’s ironic to note that Shirley Jackson died at the age of forty-nine, shortly after the publication of We have always lived in the Castle, of amphetamine addiction, alcoholism and morbid obesity; negligent of her health for years, she is said to have spoken openly of not expecting to live to be fifty, and in the final months of her life suffered from agoraphobia so extreme she couldn’t leave her squalid bedroom – as if in mimicry of the agoraphobic sisters of We have always lived in the Castle. (154-5) From the Afterword by Joyce Carol Oates

She is known as a writer of horror and mystery. This book is less of a mystery, more of an unfolding horror story. 

Cover of first edition in US

We have always lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, first published in 1962. I was lent the 2009 version in the Penguin Modern Classics series. 158pp Thanks Anne!

Some relevant links

My post on Outsiders in Fiction on Bookword, February 2020

Reviewed by Heavenali in March 2016, who loved it.

Reviewed enthusiastically on JacquiWine’s Journal in October 2017, and it was she who recommended I added this to the list of outsiders.

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Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. (1)

These are the famous opening words of the fourth novel in my Decades Project, and we are into the 1930s. It’s the era of the talkies, threats of European war, the country house and its hierarchical servants. We have moved from the cosy village whodunit of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, set in an unchanging village society in Devon to a large house in the next county. Cornwall is the setting for this psychological-romantic thriller.

The Story

A young girl, (we never know her name) is plucked from nothing. She narrates the story of her marriage to Maxim de Winter and the brief period when they lived at Manderley. From her dream in the first chapter we know that something bad happened here and that she no longer lives in the beautiful house. And from the second chapter we learn that she is still devoted to her husband, Maxim de Winter, but they live a solitary life in continental hotels. ‘Manderley is no more’.

The narrator met Maxim in Monte Carlo while she was employed as a companion to the most awful Mrs Van Hopper. Her employer is a snob, who sees the narrator as a nothing. Indeed, the narrator looses no opportunity to tell us she is poor, unremarkable to look at with lank hair and a flat chest, and with awkward social manners resulting from shyness. Maxim is 42 but despite the difference in their ages they enjoy each other’s company while Mrs Van Hopper is ill.

Maxim rescues the girl from her employer, marries her and takes back to Manderley. In her new home everything serves to emphasise the young bride’s differences to the previous Mrs de Winter, who died about 9 months earlier in a boating accident.

The most sharply drawn character is Mrs Danvers, the Manderley housekeeper. Our heroine is disempowered by Mrs Danvers, the expectations of their social group, and the unfamiliarity of a large country house. In her mind she builds the picture of Maxim’s previous idyllic marriage, and lives in her mousey way under Rebecca’s spell, increasingly believing that Maxim does not love her and is still in love with Rebecca.

When Rebecca’s boat is recovered, her noxious cousin and lover raises the possibility that Maxim murdered her. Maxim tells his new bride what actually happened and that he loathed Rebecca and loves his new bride. Eventually the tensions are allayed when it became clear that Rebecca was gravely ill and engineered her own death.

Reading the story the reader is caught up with the naivety of the young bride, feeling her gaucheness, her uncertainty about her new life, the pernicious influence of Mrs Danvers, and her inability to understand Maxim’s behaviour towards her. It is a kind of Jane Eyre, Cinderella, or imposter syndrome story. The poor wee little girl gets her man and his wealth in the end.

There is an alternative way of looking at this story, and readers who wish to retain the idea that Rebecca is a lovely romantic novel should read no further.

Menabilly House, Fowey, Cornwall, in 1920s – the inspiration for Manderley. via WikiComons

What Daphne du Maurier asks us to believe in Rebecca

The romantic view of Rebecca asks the reader to accept the following more cynical and less romantic reading might lead one to asks how the author gets us to accept the following:

Maxim is a neglectful and unkind older man who picks an innocent young woman to marry. Maxim is a man of the world, and at 42 on a few weeks’ acquaintance marries a gauche girl with very little polish or anything else to recommend her. He gives her very little help in her new responsibilities at Manderley. This is left the agent Frank Crawley.

The hero treats his wife badly. He is bound up with himself and his concerns and gives her no help in unfamiliar social engagements, the running of the house, her relationship with Mrs Danvers or, crucially, the nature of his previous marriage. He allows her to founder and she suffers.

Maxim is a murderer. He murders a woman who has just told him she is pregnant.

The narrator is especially feeble when confronting the house that has been moulded by Rebecca. She does not change the furniture, the food, the flower arrangements, acquiesces to everything Mrs Danvers or Maxim has arranged. Rather prone to imagining how things might be, she never even drams of putting her mark on the house or on Maxim’s life. I found her very feeble, always twisting her handkerchief in her fingers.

When Maxim confesses to murder his second wife hears only that he did not love Rebecca. He is a murderer. He is a wife murderer. But he loves her not Rebecca. She stands by him, excuses his crime, supports him in the efforts to pervert the course of justice.

They run away to Europe despite being exonerated. The house is destroyed by fire, probably by Mrs Danvers at the instigation of Rebecca’s foul cousin, so the De Winters go abroad and hide, desperate for news and the old rituals of Manderley. They are not happy.

Daphne du Maurier’s writing

Rebecca is a classic novel, loved by many. But it invites the reader to collude in the unassertive behaviour of the narrator and in the acceptability of a heinous crime. It is a crime even if Rebecca was a monster. (We never get to see her except through Maxim’s and Mrs Danvers’ accounts.) It is a crime even if it is suicide by enraged husband (a variation of the American suicide by police) Maxim did not know that Rebecca was ill and that she feared a slow and painful death above all else.

Perhaps we are distracted by Mrs Danvers and the other vivid characters. Mrs Van Hopper is a delight, a stupid version of Mrs Catherine de Burgh. Each of the Manderley servants, Maxim’s sister are all believable characters, and sometimes very humorous.

I got a little fed up with the endless speculations of the narrator on the possible explanations or outcomes of every situation. It’s a long novel and many of her fears could have been reduced or avoided I felt.

Hitchcock’s film

Any reading of Rebecca is influenced by the 1940 Hitchcock film starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. Hitchcock did not allow his hero to shoot Rebecca, by the way. Her death during a struggle was accidental.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938) Virago Modern Classics (2003) See the afterword by Sally Beauman 441pp

The Decade Project

I took my idea for the Decades Project from my library’s Reading Passport scheme. To encourage readers the passport is stamped on completion of a book from a different decade. I like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I am reading one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and review them here.

Previous posts in the Project

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie, published in 1926

O Pioneers by Willa Cather, published in 1913.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, published in 1905.

The next decade: 1940s

I am still musing on what to read from the 1940s for May’s choice. I am tempted by They were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple. Please make suggestions for subsequent decades, 1950s and 1960s.

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