published 1952 (British publication date 1954)
[John is explaining to his friend that his wife has organized a sorority reunion at their New England summer house on Penberthy Island]
“How’s the house party going?”
John gave an irascible snort. “It was a crazy idea of Helena’s to bring her sorority sisters back here for a visit. They have nothing in common – absolutely nothing – after all this time.”
“How many came?”
“Five – and of course Harriet Cameron is at her summer place in Medbury. A fair proportion out of a chapter of twenty, back in 1911… You and Frances Furlong should find plenty to talk about.”
“What’s she like?”
“A bit long in the tooth – too thin – bitchy: successful business-woman type. She never married you know.”
“Who else have you got?”
“Ruth Gale… weather-beaten old war horse. Lucy Kenyon, Jerry’s wife; the Fielding girl – wasn’t her name Claire? And Elinor Carrington.”
commentary: This is an excellent clever setup for a crime story: the 40 year reunion of the college women, who have had very different lives. The gracious Myricks, John and Helena – successful, rich, loving grandparents – are hosting in their lovely home. Much thanks they will get for that.
The structure is that we see the thoughts of one of the women as she commits a murder. We can see that there is an awful history with an illegitimate child and adoption. (It is somewhat like the Shirley Conran bonkbuster ** Lace: “Which of you bitches is my mother?”) We spend the rest of the book trying to work out which of the ladies it is. I often find that kind of tiny closed circle somewhat dissatisfying, but this was great: Knight knew how to lay clues, and she is aiming this at the serious crime reader, and really keeps the tension up. I kept thinking I knew – but I didn’t. And, refreshingly, there weren’t women that you removed from suspicion because they were ‘nice’. They all had their good points and their faults.
The crime is investigated by Elisha Macomber ‘the local representative of law and order’, not to be mistaken for a slow-thinking yokel, though he gives that impression. This aspect reminded me of Phoebe Atwood Taylor’s Asey Mayo, as in, for example, The Cape Cod Mystery. Meanwhile, the odd take on a closed circle was the kind of clever trick that Anita Boutell used in a couple of her books. All these comparisons may sound as though I thought the book derivative, but that was far from the case. It also had a wonderful cover – it reminded me of the recent Death Wears Pink Shoes cover, though so far as I can tell they are not by the same artist.
The black suit on the skeleton looks a little too formal for the action of the book, but I have reflected it in at least one of my own choice of pics, where the black is trying to look summery. (I don’t know why the poor girl in peasant blouse and stripey skirt has her head chopped off, perhaps another murder.)
In fact my only criticism of the book is that there is a missed opportunity, as almost no clothes are described. There is a blue dress, and a green dress. There is actually a bedjacket scene, but I have done one of those too recently….
I also was puzzled by something called the moving picture screen – people were hiding behind it, eavesdropping etc. So I thought it was a screen (ie a room divider covered in family phtographs) that could be moved around. But it wasn’t, careful re-reading in the early part of the book revealed that it was a screen to show movies on. It started as the motion picture screen in the rumpus room, and morphed into the moving picture screen in the playroom. A spot of lazy editing is apparently NOT a new thing after all!
After I’d written this, I found to my delight that my friend John over at Sinister Books also read and liked this book a while back – go to his blogpost here for great perceptions on the book, details of more by the same writer, and a different cover. (I think mine’s better, and I think TracyK will agree with me…)
** I used the word ‘bonkbuster’ in a post this week on a book inspired by Peyton Place. This, it seems, is a purely Brit English word, and there was a most enjoyable discussion in the comments. This was my explanation there:
The term bonkbuster was coined by a British journalist, Sue Limb, to indicate the kind of blockbuster that has a lot of sex in it. The word is in the Oxford English Dictionary, marked as 'British informal'. Definition: 'A type of popular novel characterized by frequent explicit sexual encounters.'Women in their summer clothes, of varying kinds, from Ladies Home Journal of the era.
And like all great coinages, sometimes it's the only word that will do, and we all wonder how we managed without it. I am hoping you are going to use it in your conversation frequently from now on...