Thursday, 24 October 2013

Give a Corpse a Bad Name by Elizabeth Ferrars

published 1940  chapter 1






At six-thirty on a Tuesday evening near the beginning of January Anna Milne was heard by her parlourmaid to say: ‘Damn the man, he’s late!’ At six-forty-five the girl, returning from the errand that had taken her past the open door of the drawing-room, overheard the words: ‘To hell with him, I can’t wait!’ Three minutes later she saw Mrs Milne come out of the drawing-room, pick up the fur coat that had been thrown down on a chair, put it on over the white skirt and knitted jumper she was wearing, pick up the badminton racket leaning against the chair, and go out by the front door. At six-fifty the lights of Mrs Milne’s Bentley flickered past the windows of the house. The parlour-maid, returning to the kitchen, told the cook what she had heard. Until past seven o’clock they discussed the language often used by Mrs Milne. They disapproved of it.

At twenty minutes after midnight a white-faced woman in a fur coat walked into the police station in the village of Chovey.


observations: Elizabeth Ferrars wrote a shedload of murder stories between1940 and her death in 1995 – more than 70 of them. She was well-thought-of among crime story aficionados, but is pretty much unknown or forgotten in the outside world. Her books were good interesting reads, and she had some very good ideas, but perhaps in the end she lacked the spark to catch the imagination and to become as famous as Agatha Christie or Margery Allingham.

This was her first book, and it’s a clever cool story, with something of a surprise at the end. She is starting a series detective, Toby Dyke, who is just a collection of eccentricities and whom she abandoned after a few books. There is the standard scene from novels of the era – a look at the life of a moneyless literary man, living in a ramshackle cottage with a woman to ‘do’ for him. There is a lot of emphasis on the fur coat mentioned above, and some nice other outfits too, plus a look at the dead man’s life via his clothes, and a clue about his suit – ‘I know the trousers he was found in were tweed, and most people don’t wear blue jackets with tweed trousers if they can help it.’ Despite the date, the war couldn’t be said to feature much, except for a woman who is ‘crooked as a swastika’.

The best scene, worthy of Cold Comfort Farm, comes when the detectives find out what it was about Mrs Milne (above) that so shocked her staff, ‘why Martha believes Mrs Milne is a tool of the Evil One, sent to snare her poor sister’. The answer has to do with contraception.

The book is a good period piece, creating a convincing atmosphere: you can see from it why she was popular, but not one of the greats.

The picture, from Vogue, comes to us via Dovima is Devine.

12 comments:

  1. Wow, she did write a lot of mysteries. I don't have any of them, don't know if I have ever read any... but certainly willing to try one. This particular one sounds very interesting. Someday.

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    1. I know! They are easy reads, not-too-demanding and not terribly memorable. Just the thing to fill a quiet afternoon if we ever get one...

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  2. In the US, she was known as E. X. Ferrars - I almost missed who you were talking about. I read some of her mysteries in the 70's and 80's.....

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    1. Oh that's interesting! do you think it might be one of those cases where they are half-pretending that she's a man, with those anonymous initials? Or at least not drawing attention to her femininity - there were other cases like that, I think there's a murder story writer called ECR Lorac, and that last name comes from her first name of Carol....

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  3. Moira - What a great choice of author for the blog. I liked her Andrew Basnett stories very much. They were a nice set of character studies and solid crime plots. And you're quite right about the atmosphere. As you say, she never got the worldwide attention of some of the other authors of the day, but she had solid talent.

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    1. Yes - I don't keep looking for her books, or rush to read them, but whenever I do it's a good solid few hours of enjoyment, with some clever plots.

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  4. Not for me, I'm afraid. I thought initially you had Nicole Kidman in the photo, but this lady is prettier.

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    1. Yes I see what you mean about Nicole, and actually it would be a great role for NK if they ever made a film of it - elegant slightly older lady with an important past and good clothes....

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  5. What an extraordinary picture from Vogue! The fur is skunk, and could only be worn where no one knows what that animal is. Here in Canada, people would instinctively go wide eyed and start to back away slowly. Skunks defend themselves with an unbelievably foul smelling spray from their anal glands when attacked or startled. Even one hit on the road will be sickeningly obvious for hours, within several miles downwind. Pity, because they do have beautiful fur, almost like sable in texture.

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    1. Somehow it doesn't look so glamorous now... what's needed is a fake name for skunk fur to dissociate it from the original animal. Thanks, as ever, for the info, Ken.

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  6. Skeleton in Search of a Closet is a Ferrars novel with a very interesting plot idea. I agree with your summary - good writer, if not one of the greats.

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    1. Thanks Martin - I've not read that one, and will seek it out. I do think of her as someone who had books with one strong plot idea.

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