Blue Murder by Harriet Rutland – a Dean Street Classic
“A Golden Age Murder” it proclaims on the cover of this book, another Dean Street Press book send to me for review. It is the final book published by Harriet Rutland, and it is a strong book notable for several twists and turns, some of which are totally unexpected. A clever book, it is an experience of reading a novel written in war time (1942) when the dangers of the blitz are a real and indeed intrude into the action. This is both a classic and an unusual novel, even if the identity of the killer is not obscure long before the end, even if only because there are relatively few possibilities. The horrible nature of the characters is so cleverly written that sympathy is in short supply, but the narrative is so compelling the reader will want to see how it works out.
Murder happens in a household where the parents are awful, the daughter difficult and the son and wife challenging. A beautiful young teacher is involved, a will is debated, and the threat of physical danger is ever present. A locally unpopular head teacher is dangerously susceptible to the charms of Miss Charity Fuller, and indeed dominates his school with more than an iron rod, much to the dismay of the teachers and at least one parent. His wife, Mrs Hardstaffe (Rutland loves playing with names in this novel) is a hypochondriac with money which proves to be a dangerous combination. The daughter, Leda, is a tough, capable woman, obsessed with her dogs and war work. Into this unhappy household comes Arnold Smith, failed writer searching for inspiration. As he becomes enthusiastic about writing a murder mystery, he keeps saying that he is going to “murder” one or more of the people around him, as he becomes a lodger in the challenging household.
This is quite a tightly written novel where there is a full set of motives. The police appear and feature as amusing characters, trying to do their best, but they seem largely ineffective. Not that they are figures of fun, but their questioning does not seem to bring results. There is a painful description of a maid who is a refugee from the German forces; while she is quite faithfully described she reflects a time when the full horror of the treatment of Jews is only just emerging. So she is seem as sensitive and melodramatic when perhaps later views would have been more sympathetic.
This is perhaps not the best of the Golden age novels, but it is a deeply interesting portrayal of a time and the people living through it. The lesser characters are well described, as even the cameo of an evacuee’s father takes its place in the overall picture of a horrible head master. This book features some truly chilling moments, and yet given the time at which it was written almost takes it into a picture of a country at war, when not everyone ‘pulled together’. I recommend it as a gripping read of characters stuck together by fate, destruction being a real possibility.