A Question of Inheritance by Josephine Bell

published 1980      chapter 16

Following their visit to the opera-house, [they] went to the Milan equivalent of a British big top and sat in the second row near the centre, where the horses’ hooves spattered them occasionally with the soft covering of the ring and the exciting smells of scent and grease-paint, sweat, hide, and animal dung, vied with those of a huge, enthusiastic audience. It was an unusually hot evening, after an overpoweringly hot day. The men were all in their shirt sleeves, though Mr Moorehead carried a linen jacket over his arm. Philip had brought a summer linen suit with him, though he had left a wet, cold, August day at Heathrow two days before. He also had shorts for the Lakes, but wore the linen trousers with a thin sweat-shirt this evening, out of courtesy to Mrs Moorehead. He was excited by the whole lay-out of his surroundings at the circus. This was something his mother had never taken him to see as a child. He had never bothered to take himself to one in England when he grew up. But now he knew he had missed something, perhaps that thing he was now enjoying at his advanced school of gymnastics in England.

observations: This is a strangely-structured but always intriguing story: there are two major ‘crimes’, and one is wide-open to the reader right from the beginning. You then watch in disbelief as police investigate a 20-year old incident - really? That man remembers the mileage of a car on a certain day all that time ago? – but the book certainly keeps the interest up.

Bell wrote her many crime stories over more than 40 years (there's one from 1950 here), and here she seems to be trying to keep up-to-date – there are some swear words dropped in rather oddly (Agatha Christie never did that) and then - political satire! - one character who has no money
had in no way begun to understand what poverty meant, in real, relative or assumed trade union terms.

There is also a housekeeper contemplating possible pregnancy among the maids, in one of those sentences you could never parse grammatically but understand exactly what she means:
They’ve left to get married and not before time, I’ve often wondered, but there’s never been anything said, and why should there, these days?

The final scenes at the circus are melodramatic, totally unconvincing, and highly enjoyable. The opera they have seen the night before is Marriage of Figaro, where the foundling Figaro is reunited with his long-lost parents.

Links on the blog: Dressing up as a circus clown here, and Terry Pratchett’s splendid clown’s funeral. The theatre school is also teaching circus skills in this book. In the marvellous Saffy’s Angel an outsider family ends up going on a strange quest in Italy – almost exactly the same happens here, though it was a relief to be re-assured that they were unrelated, we half-feared….

The picture is of a circus in NE England, and is from the Tyne & Wear Museum and Archives.


  1. Moira - Oh, that housekeeper's sentence! Wow! I understood what she means too, but yes, that is quite a structure. Interesting how different authors dealt with changing times in different ways. you're right that Christie's novels really don't include a lot of swearing. I hadn't thought about that before but that is interesting...

    1. Sounds like a good topic for your blog Margot.

  2. Another author I have gotten interested in lately. My husband pointed out The Port of London Murders. But any of them would be fine. I think this is an author of vintage mysteries that I have not read.

  3. Exactly right Tracy, vintage mysteries - not the best ever, but well worth a read, especially if you're in the mood for something historical, but set at the time they were written.


Post a Comment