This British Library Crime Classic shares some of the rules of the Golden Age Mystery fiction in that it is largely set in a large family house, with unlikable characters at every turn. Unlike most of these reprints, however, the murder does not take place until quite a way through this novel, originally published in 1964. There is no shortage of mystery, however, as the unreliable narrator alternates between telling his own story and describing what happens around him. This book is atmospheric, full of a sense of postwar realism, and very funny. As Martin Edwards points out in his Introduction, this book combines the traditional murder mystery including thoughtful policeman in attendance, with the first stirrings of the more modern novel. I was very pleased to receive this book from the British Library.
Christopher Barrington was left orphaned as a boy, but was adopted by the imperious Lady Wainwright, matriarch of the Belting establishment, a quirky old house with many dark corners. Lady Wainwright has two of her sons living with her, Stephen, the establishment figure full of tedious announcements, together with his dog obsessed wife Clarissa, and Miles. Miles is a terrific character, single with a mysterious past, full of puns and witticisms and genuine concern for Christopher. “Lady W” as Christopher refers to her, is a grieving mother, saddened by the loss of her sons Hugh and David in the recent Second World War. For this is a book where not all the men disappeared, but several did not return, and the otherwise fierce old lady is deeply traumatised by her losses. Not that this is a gloomy book; the murder when it comes proves less mysterious than the returned claimant to the family fortune, as a man turns up stating that he is David, shot down in a plane and a survivor of a Russian prison camp. The eighteen year old Christopher is torn as he observes the now very ill Lady Wainwright overjoyed by her favourite son’s apparent return, and the determination of her sons to prove that David is an imposter. The mood changes dramatically as Christopher discovers bohemian life and alcohol, and that there are many surprises to come.
This is a most enjoyable book, despite the narrator’s divided loyalties and his frequent distractions as he feels compelled to follow the commands of his distant relatives. He is an unreliable narrator because he observes so much, and digresses so frequently, as he tries to find out what is really going on. He is definitely the most attractive character in a family of difficult people. The murder is not as tragic, when it happens, as the sad decline of his benefactor and generally this is the story of an entire way of life in decline. Symons was apparently a prolific author whose writing earned him much contemporary praise. I found this book a satisfying read, even if it did break rules and go via some interesting points. It is a definite find for the British Library series, and I look forward to discovering more titles from this author.
This book will not officially be published until Monday, but I thought I would pop my review on this blog earlier to whet your appetite! Meanwhile a quick visit to Derby intu centre and Waterstones meant I got my hands on some brilliant new books. Watch this space for more details. I have had a good week for picking up interesting books generally, as happily the High Peak Book shop was conveniently open on the way home from Manchester, and I found some good things to buy. Well worth a detour if you are in the area, as it has a Northernvicar creche (otherwise known as a cafe with sofas) and is dog friendly.