Shadows Before by Dorothy Bowers


published 1939


Crime writer Dorothy Bowers (1902-48) is my subject for the upcoming Bodies From the Library conference at the British Library. I am working through her books - more of them here. 

Her first book was very much a village mystery. This one, her second, has a similar kind of setting, but you might say it was more of a country house murder. A young woman, Aurelia Brett, goes to work as a companion/carer to an older lady. There are oddities about her job interview. The household is plainly completely at odds with itself, there are all kinds of things going on: there are suspicions, and an atmosphere, and trouble, and a horrible history, and a will (as in Postcript to Poison, the first one).

Lately we’ve had books on the blog described as Spinster Miserylit and West Country Smugglers’ Gothic. I think this might be related: Single Ladies’ Gothic.

There is a chapter consisting of letters sent from the house over the course of a week – something I always greatly enjoy in a book. (It is hard to keep all the young people straight, but then I also complain if there aren’t enough suspects - at least she tried to create an adequate household of residents and visitors). And following the letters, there is a momentary gap, and now we are with the police, series character Inspector Pardoe, there has been a murder and we have to piece together what happened– another trope that I like very much. There is a lot of arsenic about, and also herb teas (which every crime reader knows to be deeply suspicious about).

My notes say the murder plot is incredibly complex and completely unguessable. A lot of information is unloaded in the final chapters. But that’s fine by me – and there were some very  satisfying surprises. So I will concentrate on some of the details in the book, an area where I am becoming increasingly respectful about Bowers.

Aurelia, the companion, is ‘dressed for walking in the green skirt and jumper, long green coat and small hat to match that she had worn on arrival two days before.’ She is taking her charge out for a walk, and they meet a new character, Esther O’Malley, introduced like this:

… a tall, thin woman, etched darkly against the northern sky. She was still some distance off, moving with a slow, lithe stride, an oblong basket on her hip. She was hatless, and the clothes she wore, a full skirt and three-quarter waisted coat of some dark material had an antique, unmatched air. On her feet were a man’s boots. As she climbed the intervening stile and drew closer, it was plain that she was a gypsy. Her features became discernible, a high-boned face that had once been handsome and was now ravaged and predatory, black, enigmatic eyes, and coarse hair knotted loosely on her neck.

The housekeeper says later that the O’Malley family ‘sinful livers as they are…live like pagans on the land and thieving off it.’ She also says that Esther tried to sell her the estate’s own ‘galeenies’. It was quite hard to find out what this meant – it’s a word that mostly has disappeared and is not in dictionaries – but it is guinea-fowl.

One of the young men is very interested in what he calls euthanasia, though it sounds from the discussion as though eugenics would be more accurate (certainly in modern usage, that may have changed).

I was delighted to find an instance of hat paint in the book, an odd incident from a peripheral character: she is at a railway station and commandeers the waiting room and spends the time dying her straw hat blue. I am fascinated by hat paint, which features in Agatha Christie books, and not much anywhere else. (I investigated in this post, on Murder is Easy where hat paint has a role.) Here the young woman says ‘a new hat for ten cents’ (she is American) and the wearing or absence of a hat is a block to recognition.

Two women in the book wear flattering or well-cut blue dresses.

A Bacchante/Maenad brooch features – ‘carved in ebony, it represented the head of a Maenad, the short wild hair rippling up and back. It was a fine impassioned bit of work.’

I like this from the inspector, encouraging a witness to speak out:

‘It’s usually better for everybody if things are told,’ he lied

It is never questioned in most murder stories, and the assumption that murder trumps all, and that no-one has a right to secrets, has always annoyed me.         

Inspector Pardoe attends church where he had

listened to a surprising condemnation of the gathering. Privately, Pardoe thought the rector a little severe. The villagers might, for all he knew, be the heartless sensation-mongers he made them out, but when you had a murder (and presumably a murderer) plopped down in your midst, you ought to be permitted a little mongering.

Another witness is busy assigning blame:

‘…On his own admission he wouldn’t mind doing a bit of murder on the q.t.’

As a description of a plot violent enough to have involved the smashing to smithereens of a high-powered car, the inspector felt that this was something of an understatement.

There’s a tomb monument, mentioned in my post on church memorials here.

This is a really good traditional mystery, witty and surprising and full of great descriptions -  and the more I read of Bowers the more I like her.

The wonderful picture of Travellers is from National Library of Ireland, and is from later than the date of the book – 1954. They are on the way to a horse fair in County Cork.

Blue dress from NYPL collection.


  1. Ooh, hat paint! That is a terrific detail, isn't it, Moira? I remember hat paint from Christie's Cards on the Table, too, and it's just not something we think about much these days. Really interesting! And as long as a plot coheres at some point, I don't mind if it's complex and mutli-layered. And (I know I'm skipping back and forth in your post!), I do like the idea of some of the story being told through letters. People don't write a lot of personal letters these days, but they were such a staple of the times! I'm glad you found so much to like here.

    1. I suppose it's a question, Margot - will emails ever be quite so interesting as fictional letters...? Some authors are giving it a good try.
      And I would quite expect that you would be able to pinpoint hat paint in another Christie book! Your eye for detail is amazing.

  2. In pre-WWII eugenics "euthanasia" was used to describe the painless culling of genetically undesirable people. Socialists were particularly enthusiastic, I'm afraid. You can find passages in Shaw and Wells waxing lyrical about the virtues of euthanasia and the improve,emt of racial stocks.

    1. Thanks for clarifying - I did suspect it must be something like that, from the way it was discussed. Yes it can be quite chilling to find out people's madder beliefs. And they were both very unquestioning about the USSR if I remember correctly.

    2. John Carey's The Intellectuals and the Masses has the dope. After a while you can't tell if the author of an anonymous paragraph is Virginia Woolf or Hitler.

    3. Blimey. I think I read the Carey ages ago, I should get it out again.

  3. Wells changed his mind about eugenics later on - he took to the view that humans couldn't decide what was "better" and that it was wiser to leave it to natural selection. He changed his mind about the USSR after Stalin came to power. Before he thought it might be worthwhile; afterwards he regarded it as a human disaster.
    Shaw approved of both Italian fascism and Nazism (though he thought it made ""mistakes) as well as the USSR. I remember reading a short play towards the end of his life where a character is taken off to an extermination chamber as completely useless.
    J.B.S. Haldane's essay "Eugenics and Social Reform" gives a humane left-wing view of eugenics early in the century.

    1. You have to respect Wells for keeping an open mind then.
      Shaw liked to say extreme things, didn't he, but it's still depressing. He should have stuck to worrying about reforming spelling.
      I feel I should read the essay - is it easy to find?

    2. It's in the widely available Possible Worlds and Other Essays, which is worth looking at for other essays. It's on the 'net at if you're running out of shelf space.
      Haldane is now probably best-known for his poem - quoting Auden - "Cancer's a funny thing".

    3. Thank you - I have downloaded it, we'll see how long it takes me to get round to it. (If you'd said the Eugenics essay was the only one worth reading it would probably be quicker!)
      I did just look up the poem - which was not known to me - Unusual!

    4. [I mean 'unusual poem', not that it's unusual for me not to know something!]

    5. Chesterton, too, wrote a book against eugenics. Agatha Christie wrote an early play about it. According to Adam Rutherford's recent book about it, it would take generations to see results, and it wouldn't really work anyway.

    6. Interesting topic - it seems self-evidently wrong, worrying etc to us, but obviously just didn't seem like that back then. In Gaudy Night isn't there an American woman who is espousing something similar, and is a great figure of fun...

  4. I noticed the companion's long green coat worn with a green skirt and ditto jumper vs the gipsy's unmatched appearance with some interest. Having everything matching everything else seems to have been very important in the 1930s. In Orchids on Your Budget Margery Hillis comments curtly on a woman who has bought herself a brown spring coat and then fallen for a black silk dress with a pattern of bright flowers: "Very fresh and spring-like, and SO flattering. But she won't be able to wear it under the coat." Apparently the companion is the right sort who knows what she is about.

    1. I forgot to mention that Orchids on Your Budget was published in 1937. And that Margery Hillis's day job was at American Vogue. But I still find it quite striking that she does not say that the black dress will look less good under a brown coat; she says that it will simply not be possible to wear it under the brown coat. And since it also seems to have been imperative that you wear this season's fashion if you don't want to look stupid, I can only assume that the poor woman who made these purchases will have to trot out and buy one more coat (and one more dress?).

    2. I do think things have changed for the better, in that the likes of Vogue are not so prescriptive - I can remember very stern admonitions in women's and teenage magazines of my youth. 'You cant wear that type of top with a traditional skirt'. I think punk and grunge swept that all away. But I had a flatmate who was very fussy - I showed her a black top I had just bought and she said 'pity you won't be able to wear it with your black trousers' she said, when that was what I'd bought it for. Apparently it wasnt the same shade of black, a fact which had escaped me and wouldn't have bothered me at any time.

    3. I have to admit that I am a rather fussy person who wants things to match. My sister, who is the opposite of fussy, was surprised that in my opinion you can't wear a short coat with a tartan pattern on top of a longish flowery skirt. To her the outdoor garments have nothing to do with what you wear under them - it's just something you put on to keep warm while getting from one place to another - whereas I would consider the total picture. But even I think that if a coat completely covers what is beneath it does not necessarily have to match. But in the 1930s apparently it had to.

    4. I'm not sure one generation's fashion strictures translate down the years very well. When I read "A Woman Tenderfoot" by Grace Gallatin Seton (Project Gutenberg), I spent far more time than it was worth puzzling over Mrs Seton's declaration that "Is one never to forget that it is not proper to wear gold beads with crape?"

    5. Gold beads with crape - that is a fascinating one. Could it have something to do with (black) crape being a mourning fabric? I also remember learning in a style guide from the 1950s that you cannot use an alligator handbag in the evening. I still wonder why.

    6. I suppose there is always an interesting grey area between what is 'correct' and what is personal choice, in any era...
      there were quite complex mourning rules about jewellery in Victorian times, and I think that is what Mrs Seton is talking about. Crape would defnitely imply mourning. I am fascinated by the phrase 'gold beads' though - I have never heard of any kind of jewellery described as that. Gold chains, yes, but do we ever see gold beads?


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