Too Many Cousins by Douglas G Browne

published 1946

Too Many Cousins

[Clothes descriptions from different parts of the book]

Mrs Shearsby [wore] a green coat and skirt, tailored to reveal a good figure, set off by too many clips and bracelets. Her little green hat was an exaggeration of a current mode, and her high-heeled shoes of patent leather were too smart for the costume and the occasion. Under her arm she carried an enormous green bag.

Too Many Cousins 3

Vivien Ardmore had perhaps no claim to beauty; [but] her admirable figure was admirably set off by a tailor-made coat and skirt of light grey flannel. On her pale gold hair, elaborately waved, perched a tiny grey hat with white flowers. White gloves, a white handbag, and stockings and shoes which suggested neither economy nor utility complete an ensemble upon which Mrs Tuke cast an approving eye.

Too Many Cousins 2

Too Many Cousins 4
When Mrs Shearsby herself opened the front door, wearing the becoming costume of the WVS (returned from the cleaners), she was also wearing hat and gloves, and her green and mauve uniform bag hung from her shoulder.
[hosting a drinks party] Miss Ardmore was tall and slender and surprisingly unruffled in green corduroy slacks and a yellow top.

commentary: The trouble with this book is that there are simultaneously too many cousins, and also too few.

Crime fiction aficionados do love a tontine: an inheritance plan whereby there are a number of potential beneficiaries, and the last person left alive scoops the lot. Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Wrong Box is a good example of a tontine-plotted book. The whole idea of a tontine is plainly bonkers, ridiculous, apart from asking for a crime plot to be wrapped round it. They are now illegal in, for example, the US and the UK (because of the temptation they posed…) and although the name survives in some countries, it doesn’t exactly have the original meaning: more a saving scheme or even a Christmas Club.

Now, Too Many Cousins doesn’t contain a tontine – the term is used loosely (not in the book, I should say) for a scheme by which in effect some members benefitting from a trust will benefit even more if other beneficiaries die. A subtle distinction but an important one.

In this particular case there is a very complicated family tree. A later wife of the original patriarch has inherited his estate in trust: when she dies it will be split equally among the rest of his family. So clearly – the fewer there are of them, the more people will inherit.

But the trouble is, the family story is complex but rather boring – I object to the waste of my time trying to follow it, when all I really needed was a two-sentence summary. Too many cousins. And then, by the time a few people have died off in suspicious circumstances there aren’t many suspects left – too few cousins.

All that said, I enjoyed the book very much because of the detailed picture of life in the later days of the war. The lab which might be producing artificial silk or maybe something more keyed to the war effort, and the sinister chemicals therein. (see also: the Frances Crane book, The Applegreen Cat) The woman helping out with the Women’s Voluntary Service, above, and the younger ladies racketing around London with their Ministry jobs and edgy brittle drinks parties, their makeshift flats and their attempts to look good. I found some of Browne’s excruciating snobbery hard to take: he was very sneery about the suburban cousins, as opposed to the effortlessly upmarket young London women.

But the introduction of a possible lost relation come back to life was highly enjoyable, and of course I did love those clothes, and am delighted to have an opportunity to feature some great pictures of wartime outfits.

I came to this book via two of my blogging friends: Noah Stewart and Kate Jackson (who was actually reviewing a different book by Douglas G Browne) and I highly recommend both their posts.

I am very keen on the portraits of the artist William Orpen, and this is another of his: Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, from the Athenaeum website. She is in a different uniform I think – that of the ATS – but gives a fair impression I think.

First photo, 1943, from the Imperial War Museum collection – ‘how a British woman dresses in wartime’.

Second photo from Kristine’s photostream.

Colour photo is from the Library of Congress photostream.


  1. I can see how you loved the clothes in this one so much, Moira. And I do like a book that takes a look at life during a particular time. The writing style is smooth enough, too, which is always a plus for me. you say, not sure about that whole inheritance setup and the number of characters. But it sounds like an interesting look at the era.

    1. The clothes will always win it for me! And it wasn't a terrible crime plot. Noah Stewart has pointed out a really great bit of cluing in it, which I failed to notice. And I do like a good clue - I think you do too.

  2. " her high-heeled shoes of patent leather were too smart for the costume and the occasion."

    I was hot and bored last night, and picked up Claire McCardell's book "What Shall I Wear?," written in the 1950's. McCardell is similarly censorious about women who wear the wrong shoes.

    1. Now I have to go and look THAT one up as well. She always sounds like an interesting person. And a life where shoes were definitely either right or wrong - was that a simpler time or a repressive time? In one US murder story (70s-ish maybe?). I read that women wearing leather shoes to a formal event was a terrible faux pas - they should be satin shoes, dyed to match your dress. I didn't know!

  3. This does sound very good and very interesting. And very nice images also.

    1. You would enjoy the WW2 homefront setting I think Tracy.

  4. I learned about tontines from "The Simpsons".

    1. Excellent! The Simpsons has many positive attributes, and now we can add 'educational'...

  5. A similar plot is found in the aptly titled THE SWEEPSTAKES MURDER by J J Connington which suffers from exactly the same inherent flaw -- the more people die off, the fewer suspects. But often the telling and the detection in these kinds of stories is far more fascinating as in SWEEPSTAKES. In Connington's book there is an outrageous method of determining when a photograph was taken and when the photographer was at a particular place and time thus destroying a supposedly airtight alibi.

    I've read one Browne mystery -- DEATH WEARS A MASK, a rather complicated story but I didn't like the detective Harvey Tuke and I kept fading in and out of the book. I set it aside multiple times, read several other books from start to finish, then finally returned to Browne and sort of shrugged my shoulders at the solution. Not sure I'll be reading any more Browne, though I have quite a few of his books including the one reviewed here. DEATH WEARS A MASK had one of the strangest murder methods I've come across lately - the victim was trampled by horses in a forced stampede. And it happens during an air raid drill! The setting and atmosphere were really the most interesting parts. The characters tended to irritate me, especially Tuke.

    1. Thanks for all that fascinating info John! I am not a fan of Connington, but now am going to be forced to find a copy of this to read about the photograph/timing method. (just found it for my Kindle).
      I very much agree - setting and atmosphere excellent, characters annoying.
      The horses - sounds like the plot of Lion King...


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