This fairly recent book in the excellent British Library Crime Classics is unusual in several ways. The most obvious is that the victim is a well-developed character throughout the book, as the death does not occur until three quarters of the way through the novel. The singular nature of this novel is that Rolls succeeds in creating an intensely dislikeable character who comes to dominate this novel; usually the victim is relatively vaguely drawn lest the reader develop sympathy with him or her. This is assuredly not the case in this novel in which for much of its length the characterisation is all and the plot only really spins along faster towards the end. While there is something of the suffocating or threatening about this book, Rolls manages to hold it together well and in a most clever way. Apparently, according to Martin Edwards’ introduction, Dorothy L Sayers said of it that there may have been a plot hole, but it was so convincingly written that the reader accepts it and moves on.
Robert Arthur Kewdingham is a domestic tyrant in his failures. His home life with wife, son and elderly father becomes a burden to himself and the others. He has strangely eccentric ideas and passion for collecting which threatens to swamp the house in so many ways. He seeks to deceive himself and others with his flirtations and suspicions, his money making schemes and his threatening behaviour. Significantly he becomes increasingly drawn to medicines of his own devising, so when he becomes ill no one cause can be observed. Those around him develop their own agendas out of curiosity and desperation. Murky motives abound and opportunities are seized to harm; the novel becomes one of many questions and subplots as various people feel compelled to react to events.
This is a clever novel for its insights into a stifling family life of mutual destruction and dislike. Each character, however minor or seemingly insignificant, has a part to play in a complex but somehow just believable chain of events. Rolls telegraphs what is going to happen at so many points in the novel; yet the reader is left guessing throughout. I think he achieves this through the small details of a house described so vividly in detail, as the collection seems to ooze from every surface and be produced to all comers. The detail of the party toys is so complete that I could visualize not only their insignificance but their symbolic destruction as part of the proverbial last straw as Mrs Bertha Kewdingham is pushed beyond endurance. The encounter with John Harrigall in London captures the wildness of city weather to echo the insufferable nature of the accusations voiced by Robert Arthur vexed by suspicion and hatred.
This is not a book to be enjoyed in many senses, as no character really emerges as a pleasant or positive. However, it is a clever book in its careful construction of the destruction of a character, not just physically but mentally. It is one of the few books where I have been tempted to look ahead to see if the protagonist can get any worse, and how far Rolls can push the boundaries of understanding of motive. It may have its inconsistencies and sometimes go beyond the limits of believability, but it is a character driven murder mystery written with confidence and control, and it is unusual in its concept.
One of the reason I have reviewed this book is that it was the only one I could not find as we arranged my complete collection of British Library Crime Classics on my dedicated shelves, and I discovered it half read on the heaped up bedside table (whoops!). I have also had more than usual trouble getting hold of the latest novel, “Fire in the Thatch” as it had sold out! Finally I ordered it through Blackwells University bookshop in Derby…I was beginning to worry that I would miss out! At last I have my copy; watch this space for more!