Dorothy Bowers is my subject for Bodies from the Library conference this year, so this is a taster – expect more to follow between now and June 18th. And do sign up for Bodies: it is back to being live in London, to our great delight, and there will also be a panel on female detectives don’t forget…
The reason I started with this Bowers title was because I had been re-reading Jenny Hartley’s brilliant Millions Like Us, which looks at British Women’s Fiction of the Second World War, and there is a glancing mention of Deed Without a Name. Now Bowers is not mentioned very much at all in works of litcrit, or modern history, or even books about Golden Age crime novels. So it’s a bit sad that here Deed is given as an example of a detective novel which ‘exploited refugees as convenient red herrings.’ I love Hartley’s book, but this actually is unfair and hard to back up.
This book is written and set in the very early days of WW2, and is a very interesting picture of London then, as people leave the capital and as the blackout descends. But refugees do not feature – the word literally is not in the book. Who it does feature are those people who had been rather too involved in Fascism & Anglo-German friendship groups in the 1930s:
“All [the group] was trying to do was to promote Anglo-German understanding, and that with complete impartiality.”
“It didn’t conduct itself toward the Jews with complete impartiality,” Pardoe remarked, with a lively memory for some unpleasant anti-Semitic business that had kept the police watchful in the summer.
She had become an avowed Fascist, black and brown, too little hampered by consistency to remark that the position to which women were relegated under the new regimes clashed with her own feminist outlook.
‘Black and brown’ refers to the shirts worn by members of the political groups – black means Mosley-ite Fascist and brown was the Nazis. You can’t do better than consult the story of Diana Mosley about these matters, and her sister Nancy Mitford – who in general has very liberal views – reminisced in 1955 (context makes clear this refers to a meeting in 1934):
‘I remember Prod [her husband] looked very pretty in his black shirt. But we were young and high-spirited then, and didn’t know about Buchenwald.’
Up into the Cold War days of the late 1970s, a Soviet insult about someone was to say they had ‘a touch of the brown shirt’ ie a history tainted with Nazism.
The book characters involved were either trying to back off as fast as they could, or were likely to be involved in shady activities. In the middle of all this down and dirty realism, there is a rather strange plot about American gangsters plonked in the middle, with references to Vinny the Backer, ‘Capone’s only serious rival’, and major gang attacks.
So a weird mixture of police procedural, home front novel, and spy thriller, but none the worse for being out of the ordinary.
Archie Mitfold, a young man about town, was trying to work something out, doing a little freelance investigating. Unfortunate accidents keep happening – though the traditional poisoned chocolates couldn’t be an accident – and eventually he is found hanged. There is some attempt to make it look like suicide, but we all know it must be murder. ‘Though his shoes carry traces of damp earth and squashed fruit, the seat of the chair is perfectly clean.’
Archie is on the side of the good guys, but isn’t made to sound tremendously nice – nobody in the book seems to like anyone else, Bowers’ mood can be something of a downer. Her descriptions of people are compelling and complete – but they are very much telling you how to think of these people, and usually it’s nothing good.
There’s a ‘vain and unveracious’ witness, and you also aren’t expected to take to a woman whose flat ‘was stuffed with floppily cushioned chairs and divans disposed with an air of salacious ease.’ (I like to think of someone asking their interior designer for this effect). Various louche people hang around in kimono or dressing gown, to the obvious disapproval of the author.
The book is very solid – workmanlike almost – but with a touch of fancy. One of the policeman says about a school that everything there is ‘done with dispatch and in their proper order’. They also talk of ‘proper sifting and bringing to order’ about some evidence. Both of these phrases would make good descriptions of the book itself.
There is an intriguing clue of bird sketches
Which is genuinely puzzling and would keep you reading, although the final explanation is completely unguessable (I would say)
I don’t think I understood the role of the mentioned-but-not-visited nightclub The Pied Monkey, and I don’t really know how the title Deed Without a Name relates to the book.
But I am looking forward to establishing an overview of Bowers. See you at the British Library!
Top picture from Imperial War Museum shows exactly the kind of houses featured in one part of the book, in 1940, when some people were having to move out. (An empty house is key to the plot)
There is one more aspect to the book which I will look at in another post – fountains in books!
The bit about salacious ease made me laugh, Moira! I think I have probably read this, but I don't remember much about it except that it didn't make my heart sing.ReplyDelete
I am always on the side of someone with salacious ease! I am looking forward to reading more by her and looking for themes - I have read a few before, so I feel I can really dig in (she only wrote five or so). It's strange that there is very little written about her.Delete
Oh yes, and I loved Millions Like Us.ReplyDelete
Isn't it marvellous? I picked it up to look something up, and ended up re-reading the whole thing, lost in that world of the Home Front...Delete
This sounds like a really interesting blend of (sub)genres, Moira. And when it's done well, that can work. It's a fascinating time in London's history, too, and interesting to see it through the eyes of the people who lived it. I'm sure your Bodies From the Library part will be brilliant!ReplyDelete
Thanks Margot, and I (like many) always enjoy a book set in that time and place, particularly a crime novel! And thanks for kind words about Bodies. You will have to come over for it one of these years...Delete
There's a reference in Murder Must Advertise to Mr Prout the photographer causing a sensation by turning up to the office in a black shirt. I'd always assumed this was just a sartorial faux pas, but perhaps it was a more sinister choice?ReplyDelete
Am making a note of Millions Like Us, it sounds great.
Sorry, that's me being UnknownDelete
Oh I'll have to look that up, I don't remember that though I'd have expected it to strike me at the time!Delete
I can confidently predict that you would love Millions Like Us.
I've read "Fear and Miss Betony" which was an...efficient, I think, is the word I am looking for...mystery, it was well and clearly written, it certainly kept me guessing until the end, and the author played fair.ReplyDelete
That being said, it was difficult to drum up any sympathy for any of the characters, even the protagonist. And she, I'm sure, was intended to be sympathetic; aren't all intelligent, impoverished, yet plucky gentlewomen? I first came across the book on Open Library - they have another one of Bowers' books, "Shadows Before" that I may tackle soon.
thanks for useful info. I think my problem with her so far is - as I say above - that no-one likes anyone else, including readers and characters, there really is a lack of sympathetic characters. But I am finding them interesting reading.Delete