The Widow of Bath by Margot Bennett
If you like your mysteries with a shoal of red herrings, this classic novel of 1952 now reprinted in the wonderful British Library Crime Classics series is definitely one for you. Martin Edwards, in his fascinating Introduction, appreciates the book as one of the talented Margot Bennett’s novels. He quotes Julian Symons “She uses as mere incidents tricks that would serve other writers as material for a plot.” Bennett lays out so many ideas that would normally dominate an entire mystery, her characters have got back stories, she throws in possible solutions as fast as she introduces new questions. There is the impossible murder without a body, unshakable alibis, the non-functioning telephone and the dog that may have barked in the night. There are many suspects, known and unknown to the main character, who himself has a significant record. There are cultural references to the 1950s, such as the after effects of War on a small coastal town, the self-satisfaction those who campaign to keep it ‘unspoilt’, ignoring the growth of housing and the dubious supply of workers to the town’s amenities. This is a novel of so many possibilities all held expertly together with a firm hand, while the central mystery of an infamous murder plays out. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this excellent mystery.
The novel begins in the restaurant of a hotel. Hugh Everton is a young man who is obviously compiling some sort of report on the establishment as he scribbles notes to himself. Having asked for a chicken pie he is served a substitute “He ate his veal-and-ham pie without tasting it; this was easy enough, as it had no taste.” Moving onto the bar he encounters a young woman he knows, Jan, and enquires after her uncle, a retired judge, named Bath. When the older man enters in the company of his younger wife, Lucy, Everton exchanges some barbed comments with her, as well as being introduced to their companions, Atkinson and Gerald Cady. Everton obviously has history with Lucy and is convinced that Atkinson is in fact an imposter, as he has bad memories of a man who resembles him in so many ways. It is when the party retires to the judge’s house that a murder occurs that is remarkable in many ways, not least the speedy disappearance of the body. Thus, Lucy becomes the Widow of Bath, and a complex and multi–layered mystery evolves in which Everton is not the only one in danger.
This is an admirable book in which the reader is drawn along by sheer momentum. There are so many ways in which the author draws attention to other possibilities without diverging too much from the central questions that it is extremely skillfully written. As Everton tries to investigate a murder, he encounters those who think they know something, as well as those who make themselves scarce at the thought of involvement. There are important social elements of the time thrown in to reflect the time; the public obsession with true crime, the appearance and disappearance of those who struggle to cope, the urge to follow ambitions to do more. I recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys classic mysteries as well as those who enjoy a book with real insight into times past, as it was written in an age similar to our own in some ways, but radically different in others.