by AG Macdonnell(under pseudonym Neil Gordon)
LOOKING AT WHAT GOES ON UNDER THE CLOTHES
“Good-night, Uncle Harry,” said a girl’s voice from one of the first floor corridors; “it’s high time you were in bed.”
“Is that you, Rosemary? Good-night.” Kerrigan could see the girl join Lord Claydon and lean over the banisters. She was wearing a flimsy silk dressing-gown and blue pyjamas and elegant, high-heeled bedroom slippers.
“Every one’s gone to bed, I suppose,” she remarked, “except you two gay old night-birds?”
“Almost every one,” said Ilford with a dry laugh.
“Shall I switch the lights out?” asked Rosemary.
“No, my dear,” replied Lord Claydon with a touch of nervousness in his manner, “I’ll do all that.”
She craned her neck over and remarked: “Don’t forget the lights in the billiard-room. They seem to be in full swing. And the passage leading to the dining-room.”
commentary: Here we go again: the favourite Clothes in Books theme of wandering round the big old house in the middle of the night in inadequate clothing. See this post for earlier remarks, and here and of course Agatha Christie’s Seven Dials Mystery, in which ‘The Countess flinched and sat up. She drew the folds of a very transparent negligée closer around her. It was a mere veil of orange chiffon.’ And a transatlantic version here. CiB even has a name for the genre: the adventuress in a nightie.
Immediately after the passage above there is going to be a lot of jockeying: Each person wants the others to go to bed so that he or she can be left in sole possession of the downstairs rooms. In fact this particular night in the country house exhausted me as well as the sleepless residents. I am convinced there were not enough hours in the night for all the wild events that took place.
His explanation was rudely interrupted by the arrival, headlong and breathless, of one of the footmen from the upper parts of the house. He was dressed in shirt, socks, and trousers and he was extremely agitated and excited, exclaiming repeatedly, “My lord, my lord, my lord!” In the twinkling of an eye, Lord Claydon, Ilford, the butler, and Lady Caroline (in a fearful and wonderful dressing-gown of purple satin, and a lace cap), appeared on the first floor.It is almost too much.
In April I wrote about Guy Cuthbertson’s excellent book about Armistice Day, Peace at Last. I concentrated on his coverage of the events in my home town of Winchester, and one of the commentators on the post, Roger Allen, reminded me of AG Macdonell’s book England, Their England – famous for its description of a cricket match, but also featuring an idyllic visit to Winchester.
He also mentioned some other books by Macdonell, and that’s how I came to read this one. I started with one called Murder in Earl’s Court, and that was passable: this one features the same hero, Peter Kerrigan, and is much better. Kerrigan is more of an anti-hero – a conman and small-scale criminal with friends in the police force.
It is a strange mixture of genres - a murder mystery crossed with something like the flapper thrillers of Agatha Christie, with the trope of foreign gangsters coming over here to commit special crimes. There are poker-playing thugs, and blackmailers, and dubious art experts. There is a lost treasure, and a feisty old lady (she of the purple satin dressing gown.) There is a secret code, something sewn into embroidery samplers, and young people careering round the country in motor cars. And anything with a Shakespeare connection is always appealing.
The main young woman, Pamela, is always threatening to be an interesting character:
She was a tall, good-looking girl of about twenty-three or four, beautifully dressed and manicured, with marcel-waved black hair and crimson lips, thin eyebrows, and unfathomable depths of self-confidence.-but never quite makes it.
There is a Master Criminal known only as The Duke, over from America to do his dirty work. This nickname is a terrible choice by the writer given that the book is full of posh people, and a reference to the Duke can have you expecting the annoying local nobleman.
At one point Peter Kerrigan assembles a gun, a piece of lead piping and a length of rope, for all the world as if he were going to take part in a live-action Cluedo game (the game dates from much later, 1949).
POTENTIAL VERY SLIGHT SPOILER
Very occasionally there is a book in which someone’s backstory sounds as though it might be a much more interesting novel than the one you are reading. And here we go:
He had, apparently, committed bigamy early in life, and was unwilling to go to prison, to see his son by his second wife disinherited, and to contemplate the prospect of his entire estates and fortune going, after his death, to the next heir, who happened to be the son of a Jamaican cook.Now there’s a book we’d like to read, but that’s all we ever hear.
So: this was an enjoyable enough farrago if you like this kind of thing. I am looking particularly at those mysteries described as ‘humdrums’ at the moment, because of a forthcoming panel on the subject at the Bodies from the Library conference next weekend. And I think, fair play, this has too many extraneous features to be a proper humdrum…
The Duke’s bomb-throwing practice was good for direction, but not quite good enough for strength.Lace caps from the New York Public Library.