She took a cigarette herself and let the stranger light it for her. She was a small woman of thirty-five, slender, neat and unobtrusive, with brown crisply curling hair that was parted in the middle and drawn back into a tight little knot. She had gentle brown eyes and small fine features. Her skin, naturally fair, had the biscuity tinge and the reddening on the cheekbones that comes from spending a great deal of time, all the year round, out of doors. She was wearing a green and red tartan skirt and red woollen jumper. “The rent,” she said, looking out of the window as she said it, finding it too hard to meet the man’s eyes when she spoke of money, “is four guineas a week.” He nodded, as if he knew this.
commentary: I’m sliding in a last-minute extra book for 1957 and Rich Westwood’s Past Offences meme.
Elizabeth Ferrars wrote a ton of books, and had more detectives than you could shake a stick at, many of them appearing in only a few books. This is a very typical example – not the best and not the worst. (There are quite a few others on the blog: click on her name label below to see others.)
My first 1957 book, Nicholas Blake’s End of Chapter, was very much a city affair, with smoky busy London another character. This is the opposite – a classic rural mystery, set in a village with a big house, a lot of busybody middle classes having drinks together, and some comic servants in the offing.
Meg, the woman above, has just let her cottage to a mysterious and sinister stranger. Meanwhile, there has been an unexpected inheritance, a failed love affair, a divorcee returning, and a man who might be an impostor. Everyone talks to each other in short brittle sentences, and they are forever arriving somewhere and then leaving shortly afterwards. There are worrying phonecalls, a strange reflection which means people can peer into each other’s rooms, and a lot of discussion of potential wickedness.
I particularly liked the woman who says:
“In my view, which is frankly old-fashioned,” Miss Harbottle said, “early youth is an almost entirely evil period, and it’s only if people are very very kind and clever with one that one is sometimes successfully tamed. I can remember, in my own childhood, being savage, destructive, envious and dishonest. As to the taming process . . .”Typically, the next sentence is ‘the telephone rang.’ Every conversation is interrupted in this way, though not – as the experienced crime reader might think – so revelations can be delayed and secret-keepers knocked off.
I also liked the writer Marcus, getting incensed about income tax:
[He] found his own anger and excitement rather enjoyable, a fact of which he was perfectly aware, as he was aware of most of his own quirks. The lashing up of his own rage at a time when he felt certain that his audience was bound to sympathise with its excesses was a luxury to which he treated himself almost as deliberately as he might buy a bottle of wine. Yet the rage itself was entirely genuine, tending to make him even blinder than usual to what was going on around him.Funny and recognizable.
The solution – well there was a very small cast of characters, and I’d rather lost interest by the end, but (as in so many books) it was odd that murderous types who have gone to extreme lengths to cover up crimes will then confess for apparently no reason at all – that was rather disappointing.
As a book of 1957: there was the ranting on income tax, people still pleased that butter is off the ration, and a discussion of the law on furnished tenancies. The wonders of penicillin are still very new.
The whole thing seemed a very convincing picture of a 1950s English village, but then everything I know is based on murder stories of the time, so I may not truly be able to judge.
A good average mystery…
Picture from the Clover Vintage Tumbler.