In recent years, as I prepared my special Xmas entries, I was given to wondering what happens to the children in seasonal mysteries.
Last year I did a whole blog entry on the subject, pointing out how rare child characters are, and how odd that is. And I gave my thoughts on why that is – you can read the post here. Readers joined in with gusto – but giving their views rather than coming up with hundreds of books featuring children. (Although, see the exception in tomorrow’s entry.)
During 2017 I found this book:
Portrait of a Murderer by Anne Meredith(published 1933)
- one featuring a very grim family Christmas, and a murder advertised in the first sentence:
Adrian Gray was born in May 1862 and met his death through violence, at the hands of one of his own children, at Christmas 1931.The elder Mr Gray has six children, most of them married, several of them with children. So how has the book managed to ensure that not one of the grandchildren is there for this gruesome and violent event?
It is worth examining Meredith’s wholesale planning: it is quite clear that the author wants no children there, and she explores every possible excuse.
One lot of children are too low-class to be invited (the son Hildebrand married beneath himself – the children may not even be his). One grandchild is dead. A couple of them are grown up and are spending Christmas in Switzerland.
The most inexplicable failing is Miles and Ruth, clearly the nicest of the next generation, and loving parents to two quite young girls. So why have they turned up at the lonely house at Kings’ Poplar, (aka the Manor of Death), without their beloved offspring?
Meredith helpfully gives us a conversation of exposition – Amy keeps house for her father and is a grim old trout:
[Ruth says] “It isn’t that I wanted to come. You know I hate having Christmas away from the children. But this year you did seem quite as keen as me.”
“Which isn’t saying very much, if you come to analyse it. And I won’t bring the brats here, even if your fond sister, Amy, would have them.”
“She mightn’t mind,” suggested Ruth, in the same indecisive voice.
…”No, I wouldn’t have them here for any bribe. Let them at all events preserve the illusion that Christmas is the children’s feast, when one’s efforts are primarily directed towards their entertainment,when they do come first and can, practically speaking, demand what they like and no one will refuse them., They’d develop into infant cynics if we had them down here for 24 hours.”
Ruth thought of her babies, aged 7 and 4. They would be asleep long ago, and she was jealous of Emily, Miles’s sister, who would have them for the three days of the holiday. They’d be lying in their blue and white striped pyjamas, excited and longing for the morning.So Meredith has gone to great trouble to explain away these parents’ dereliction of duty, and yet the whole thing is wholly unconvincing, it makes no sense.
The whole book is something like that.
It is quite long, and repetitious. We know who the murderer is from quite early on, and the question is whether this person will get away with it.
This format always seems to be one that appeals a lot more to crime writers than readers – I’m always rather disappointed, as I want my surprises, my unexpected twists. The book is written seriously, it has literary ambitions which it semi-achieves: throughout the book I felt that half the conversations thoughts and feelings were clever and well done, and half of them were complete rubbish, wholly unbelievable.
My friend Kate Jackson reviewed the book over at her blog, Cross Examining Crime, and made a very good point about its Dickensian overtones - I very much recommend her post.
Dorothy L Sayers liked this book – it is mentioned in this year’s collection of her 1930s crime reviews:
The book is powerful and impressive, and there is a fine inevitability to the plot-structure which gives it true tragic quality.My good friend Martin Edwards recommends it in his wonderful books on Golden Age Detective Fiction.
The name is a pseudonym – the author has appeared on the blog before as Anthony Gilbert, and her real name was Lucy Malleson. Martin writes fascinatingly about her joining the Detection Club, and points out what keen GA readers will have noticed: that Agatha Christie gave the stocking stealer in her 1936 Cards on the Table the name of Anne Meredith….
The suitably sentimental picture is Christmas Morning by Agathe Rostel and is from the athenaeum website: exactly the scene that no parents in a murder story will see… EXCEPT! See tomorrow’s entry for a seasonal exception.