Book of 1969 – Catherine Aird

The Complete Steel, also published as The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird

published 1969

Complete Steel

[Readers are following a coach party round a stately home – they have reached the armoury]

It was a truly fearsome collection.

Weapons sprouted from the walls, antique swords lay about in glass cases, chainmail hung from hooks and – as if this weren’t enough – several suits of armour stood about on the floor.

‘Whoopee,’ shouted Michael. ‘Look Mum, this is what I’ve been doing…’

He darted off down the centre of the armoury, shadow boxing with the coat of war of some long-forgotten knight of a bygone age.

‘Got you,’ he said to one of them, landing a blow on the breastplate. It resounded across the hall.

complete steel 2

[Looking at a picture at the top of a staircase]

The sitter must have been looking at the artist because whichever way Mrs Pearl Fisher looked at the portrait, the portrait looked back at Mrs Pearl Fisher. It was of a woman, a woman in a deep red velvet dress, against which the pink of a perfect complexion stood out. But it was neither her clothes – which Mrs Fisher thought of as costume – nor her skin which attracted Mrs Fisher. It was her face.

It had a very lively look indeed.

And of one thing Mrs Fisher was quite sure. Oil painting or not, the woman in the portrait had been no better than she ought to have been.
commentary: I am sneaking another one in for Rich Westwood’s 1969 book challenge over at Past Offences - this is very different from my previous entry, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

The Aird book could also be listed in my recent Guardian piece on book titles from Hamlet:
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon.
-- it’s a very reasonable title: the words mean a suit of armour, and that’s where the corpse is going to be found in the crime story. But still – the book has also been published as The Stately Home Murder, which is much more helpful.

Anyway, it’s a little gem – short, no waste of time, and hilariously funny. Perhaps Aird was hitting her stride: this was her 3rd Sloan and Crosby book, and I liked it better than the previous two (The Religious Body is on the blog here).

The murder plot is fine (though raises a few questions – the line about the rightful Earl is treated rather strangely) but the real joy comes in the clash of cultures as Inspector Sloan goes to investigate in a stately home where death has taken a noble family by surprise. Sloan is accompanied by Crosby, a sidekick who is a refreshing change from the moody, the clever, the perfect companions found in so many crime stories. Crosby is not very clever, and tends to say the wrong thing. And he is unable to fit the long aristocratic name of Lord Henry into the box on his form. (Henry Augustus Rudolfo Cremond Cremond.)
Sloan is neutral – no Bolshy chip on his shoulder, but no automatic deference for the nobs. He has trouble finding his way around:
‘Hackle is in the knot garden if you want to see him.’
Inspector Sloan hesitated. A knot garden sounded like a noh play. ‘Where’s that?’
‘Just this side of the belvedere’ said the steward, trying to be helpful. ‘By the gazebo.’
It was like learning a new language.

The body has been found inside the armour in the armoury, and there is a fine moment when the body is being photographed by the police:
‘A bit more to your right’
‘Hold it.’
Quite unnecessarily.
‘Now a close-up.’

And later, when THE suit of armour has been removed, ‘ the armoury looked like a gigantic game of chess after a good opening move.’

It’s like a much funnier version of TV series Downton Abbey.

As a 1969 book: although some of the comedy is broad, the theme of the working classes paying their half-crowns to visit a stately home is very much of its time – the practice had started some time before, but expanded hugely during the 1960s. Splendidly, the Lady Eleanor tries to get entrance money out of the policemen coming to investigate the crime. (She doesn’t succeed: Inspector Sloan is worried about his expenses.)

The suit of armour is from Wikimedia. The (no doubt highly respectable and virtuous) woman in scarlet above is blog favourite William Orpen’s portrait of Madame Errazuriz from the Athenaeum website, first used in this Agatha Christie entry. My one criticism of Aird’s book is that the character in the picture – known locally as Bad Betty – could have featured more.


  1. Aird really does use wit rather well in her novels, doesn't she, Moira? And I agree with you: the dynamic between Sloan and Crosby is interesting - poor Crosby is so incompetent, and Sloan has to deal with it. Nice touch, I've always thought. Interesting, too, that you mention Sloan's neutrality. Aird doesn't seem to write with a particular political agenda, at least not an obvious, strong one.

    1. I know you're a fan of Aird, Margot, and I'm really beginning to see why, and looking forward to pursuing more of this series.

  2. Another author I have to track down Moira - there are so many, but I shall not be beaten., I'll read everything int he end, just you wait and see :)

    1. Sometimes it would be easier if people stopped writing new ones and rediscovering old ones. I'm sure I know about quite enough books to last me forever now..

  3. Moira, I'm intrigued by the two very different titles of the book. I'm guessing the second one was meant to ensure the book appealed to a larger section of readers.

    1. Exactly Prashant, I'm betting her publishers were pushing for the Stately Homes title, thinking it would grab people more.

  4. Thanks Moira, the third stately-home-open-to-the-public story this month (Peter Dickinson's A Pride of Heroes and Youngman Carter's Mr Campion's Farthing). Must have been something in the air in 1969.

    And it happened in Downton Abbey this week, although I hide behind the sofa when that's on.

    1. I know! - I nearly added that in about Downton, but time ran away from me. I'm thinking of doing a piece on stately-home-visits in books - so although I had the Peter Dickinson (I think he did a couple...) the Campion was new to me, so thanks for the addition...

  5. I liked this one very much, especially the unusual (to me anyway) characters in the family and the servants. I very much liked both Henrietta Who? and A Late Phoenix, also earlier books in the series. I look forward to reading further into the series.

    And I agree, I either own or want to find too many authors to read and don't need to know about any more.

    1. Indeed - and actually I wasn't THAT bothered by the first couple of hers I read, but now after this one I do want to read more. Drat!

  6. How could you not want to know more about Bad Betty?
    And I love that picture!

    1. Well exactly Sara, glad you agree with me - if you introduce a character called Bad Betty you surely want to follow through on her! And I was really pleased with the picture...


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