Thursday, 30 April 2015

Murder in Time by Elizabeth Ferrars



published 1953


Murder in Time


She had a wash and changed out of her office-suit into a dress of dull yellow silk, spotted with white. Going in to the sitting-room, Sarah discovered an old lady sitting in a high-backed chair.

The old lady was dressed in a mauve silk dress and mauve cardigan and had diamond ear-rings glittering in her ears. Sarah was not a judge of diamonds, yet something about the old lady herself made her instantly take for granted that these were real. The old lady was just lighting a cigarette from the stub of another, which she then threw, still glowing, into a small ash-tray that was already overflowing with stubs and ash.

‘Ridiculous thing,’ the old lady said malevolently at the inadequate little bronze dish. ‘Niggling. Stupid. I like things to be big and useful. Now, my dear, tell me who you are.’

 
observations: Karyn Reeves reviewed this book recently on her splendid A Penguin a Week blog: I had a copy on my shelves - which meant I read it a long time ago. But I remembered nothing about it, so gave it another go.

It’s a strange story, frequently subverting your expectations. Unlike many books of the era, it’s not always obvious who is ‘nice’ and who isn’t. People behave in odd and intriguing ways, but not to the point of exasperating the reader….

A group of people are gathered in a country house near the South Coast, because they are all flying to Nice for a long weekend. All they have in common is their acquaintance with host Mark Auty. The book began in time-honoured fashion with all the various guests thinking about and discussing their invitation, lots of exposition and descriptions of their backgrounds and clothes. It is obvious that some of the invitees are far from happy about the idea of seeing Mr Auty again. So – all set up nicely.

In fact no-one in the book makes it to Nice, which did surprise me – I kept expecting the trip to happen in some form, I think because I would have thought an early 50s writer who promises an exotic location would be expected to make good on it. But no, we are stuck in the hideous country house with low, beamed ceilings and plenty of brown furniture clutter – like the set for many a 50s British film.

The plot is bizarre, and provokes many, many unanswered questions: a major crime is averted, but really the chances of anyone getting away with it in the first place seem remote. The eventual solution is convoluted in the extreme.

But the details of life and attitudes are gorgeous. Our heroine Sarah has ‘a wash’ rather than a shower or bath. Everyone smokes and drinks all the time. Sarah has an academic father who wanted her to go to university, but luckily ‘her mother had come to the rescue’ and Sarah became a secretary, ‘not so foolish as to attempt to develop an intellect which no-one but her father would ever dream she possessed.’

Auty’s fiery Brazilian fiancĂ©e turns up and starts flinging accusations around – she says two people are secret lovers and murderers, and it’s obvious that it’s the sex claim that is really embarrassing for them. When they try to defend themselves, the man whispers ‘Go slow. Remember that you’re dealing with a Latin mind.’

And in an absolute prize conversation, the older lady above asks a young man why he gave up the stage.
‘The life didn’t suit me,’ he said…
‘It takes courage and devotion to be an actor,’ she said truculently. ‘I admire actors. In Bradford I go to the theatre every week, even in the pantomime season.’
‘That must take courage and devotion,’ he said.

The women have all brought special clothes to wear in Nice, which sadly we don’t see much of, though one of them says ‘tomorrow we’ll be in Nice and I can wear that topless dress with the camellia pattern’ – one does hope she means ‘strapless’, though elsewhere a different dress IS described as strapless, so it’s not an unknown phrase.

The relation between the older lady and her adopted son is very reminiscent of that in Agatha Christie’s Mrs McGinty’s Dead, which appeared a year before. There is also some muttering about the food black market – there was still rationing in the UK at this time.

So – rather good as a period piece. Not one you’d read for the brilliance of the plotting, but definitely an interesting read. And do read Karyn’s review too.

The picture is from the US Ladies Home Journal a few years before.














16 comments:

  1. Off to order my copy immediately. You'll be pleased to hear, I'm obviously suffering no ill-effects from my full frontal lobotomy undergone yesterday,

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  2. Yep, pretty sure "topless" means strapless too. Or at least a dress designed not to be worn with a jacket/bolero on top.

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    1. Thanks Daniel - it just sounds unfortunate to modern eyes I think!

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  3. I'm still stuck, Moira, on that point about being 'rescued' from going to university and developing intellect. Yes, a period piece indeed! Still, I can just picture the country home and the plans for Nice. It all does sound atmospheric, and Ferrars was good at building atmosphere. Not sure I'll be rushing out to get this one, but it sounds like an interesting look at that time.

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    1. Always good for sociological detail, and at least we can congratulate ourselves that times have changed. It was entertainging, but I wouldn't be insisting you rush off to read it, Margot, as you can tell.

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  4. Thanks for the reminder that I need to look for more of her books. They don't show up much at book sales or used book stores, so have to make more of an effort.

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    1. I wonder if she wasn't as successful in the States? I believe her books were marketed there as by 'EX Ferrars', hiding the fact that she was a woman....

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  5. I really like the sound of this and I'm not sure I've read anythign of hers, so definitely getting it - thanks Moira (and PS - Masters going in the post today - sorry it took me so long).

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    1. I kept visualizing it as one of those 50s b/w Brit crime films Sergio, the kind you so often feature - it really would fit, the drinks tray, everyone smoking, a lot of brittle dialogue. I hope you enjoy it. And thanks for the Masters!

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  6. Moira, there is an air of expectation when a group of people are gathered in a "hideous country house" and you know there's no way out. A locked room mystery with many a twist, so to speak.

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    1. Yes indeed - sometimes the predictable, or at least the not-unpredictable, is good for those reasons....

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  7. I've only read one of her books - The Crime and the Crystal - as it was set in Adelaide, and I found the details engrossing but the crime itself all over the shop, and I wondered if I'd just hit a not-so-good one (she was nearing 80 when it appeared so maybe inspiration wasn't happening) or if her books were a bit second-rate in general -- perhaps someone here can recommend me a better one?

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    1. I usually enjoy reading them - but prefer the earlier ones , I think she lost it later, trying to adapt to modern life. But I'd be hard put to name one that was particularly memorable or worth recommending- it'd be good if someone else came up with one...

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  8. I would recommend Skeleton in Search of a Cupboard, but you did not like that one as well as I did, and it was written around the same time as The Crime and the Crystal. It is the only one I have read but it did inspire me to read more of them, although I have yet to find any more. I felt like that one presented an interesting picture of the female main character, and also depicted the times well. (Although I do not live in the UK, so maybe not.) The mystery plot may have been complex and unrealistic in places, but that is not so different from a lot of mysteries. I forget details soon anyway.

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    1. Good call though Tracy - I did like it, I just wasn't sure about her grasp on the minutiae of modern life. I think Martin Edwards recommended it to me. Entry here Vicki http://clothesinbooks.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/skeleton-in-search-of-cupboard-by.html complete with 2 really excellent pictures from contemporary knitting patterns, and a deep discussion between Tracy and me about our 80s perms.

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