Helen Farrell had taken up show jumping again as an outlet for her restless energy, while she considered her position and decided on her next move. As a young girl she’d been quite well known and had had two really good horses, but now the price of a Grade A jumper was so exorbitant, she had decided that a promising young horse, which she could ride in Foxhunters and Grade C classes, was all she could possibly afford. Devon Lad had gone well, he’d been seventh today – just in the money. He hadn’t touched a fence, it was just that she hadn’t liked to hurry him in the jump-off against the clock. If you hurried a youngster too soon he lost his head; you had to wait until they had a bit of experience before you rode all out to win.
commentary: I loved the same author’s Gin and Murder so much, I had to immediately read another of her murder stories (there is one more, which I hope the wonderful Greyladies press will also republish along with these two).
Stage school, ballet class, sailing and camping – none of these were part of my life growing up, and yet I loved to read books about them. Horses were equally not something that featured in my childhood, but I never had a pull towards pony stories - did I miss out? This author wrote more than 30 pony books for children, think of the joy if I’d liked them. And I do love these adult books… even though the passage above is full of mystifying terms, Grade A – Foxhunters – Grade C. And elsewhere in the book there is endless talk of standing martingales and studs (not meaning what I thought it meant), going slap through the triple, dragon’s teeth, linseed mash, and the key difference between lameness in the off fore and the near fore…
But I happily immersed myself in this world of horse-shows, weekends spent driving a horsebox to a muddy field then competing with your frenemies while also indulging in vicious gossip and some hard drinking. These are show-jumpers, and there is a distinction between amateurs and professionals, and everyone is short of money. Horses are an expensive pastime. (I have read enough horse-y books to know that at every point in the 20th century horse owners were looking back to a theoretical golden age, not many years earlier, when it was quite possible to be lavish with the horses, and they could easily afford good mounts, and feed was much cheaper. Which might be true for all I know.)
We are introduced to a group of horsey people, all of them with problems and difficulties of their own. One of them dies from drinking a poisoned milkshake. The splendid Inspector Flecker and his assistant Browning (who appeared in the earlier book) charge around the countryside asking questions and looking in the dustbins, and – of course – finding that just about everyone had a motive for getting rid of the rather unpopular victim. There is a promising-sounding strand about a sacked butler and a walkout by staff, but this is really just a way of reducing the pool of suspects: there were Words, but disappointingly we don’t find out what they consisted of. But there are plenty of people left to badmouth each other. Family secrets are revealed, and eventually the culprit is identified.
It’s a splendid short book, highly enjoyable. The horse shows reminded me of one of my all-time favourite books – Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey – which was published in 1949, but set in some mysterious anytime, a time which resembles the setting of this book (and inspired the wonderful Jo Walton to write her Small Change trilogy: see blog entry here for more). This book had the feel of the mid-1950s, then suddenly there would be a reminder of modern life. And one modern feature was that so many of the women wore trousers, and not just jodhpurs for riding. Blue jeans and red and white shirt – yellow pants and green blouse – bikini top and shorts – blouses with grubby jeans – pink blouse and apple green jeans.
JP-T does a jolly good job of telling you what everyone is wearing, although there is an odd violent reaction from a different policeman (about to have his nose put out of joint by Scotland Yard) who
detested women in shorts, slacks, coloured stockings, huge hairy sweaters or any other form of mildly unconventional dress.We are also firmly told that
the shameful memories of a brief marriage when he had found himself to be impotent… still coloured his outlook, and except for very elegant, well-dressed and made-up women whose company could sometimes send a tiny surge of virility through him, he found them all repellent.This is Too Much Information about someone who is a very minor character who is about to disappear from the book. It sounds very much like an analysis of a serial killer - in a modern book he would no doubt turn out to be the villain, but it is not a spoiler to say it is not that kind of book.
Young woman clearing a jump is from Florida memories, 1947.