Dancing With Death by Joan Coggin – an entertaining 1947 classic mystery republished by Galileo Publishing
Dancing With Death by Joan Coggin
Lady Lupin is a bit scatter brained, an amateur detective and a Vicar’s wife – which in this 1947 novel means that she is summoned by her good friend, Duds, to a house party which is disastrous, and not just because they have run out of alcohol. This is a stylish novel of an almost claustrophobic gathering which takes place in a house to try and recreate a time before post-war rationing, when food and drink were plentiful, and everyone was younger. It has been re published by Galileo Publishing recently, and offers a superb insight into life at the time for a certain group of people linked by family ties and old romances. There is a mystery which does not actually mature until well into the novel, but the building tension within what is virtually a closed community of people is well handled. This is a well written novel of social manners and expectations, old loves, clothes and a setting which fulfils many of the requirements for a classic mystery, Written from different points of view but mainly from the point of view of Duds and Lupin, this is a fine example of a novel which shows a sophisticated understanding and presentation of characters under pressure, with a certain amount of humour. Written to portray the times, Coggins has assembled a fine cast of characters and placed them in a complicated situation, and I found the whole package very engaging, and very hard to put down once begun.
The book begins with Lupin receiving a telegram at the Vicarage which alerts her to her friend’s difficulties. “Am in great trouble, please come at once. Duds”. This summons sends Lupin into something of a panic; she wants to rush to her friend’s house yet is aware of her family and church obligations. Her scatter gun instructions to her maid/ housekeeper/church worker are enough to confuse anyone, being contradictory and wide ranging. To be fair she is full of trepidation for what may have happened, as an earlier letter from Duds described a house party where things were going wrong; her husband Tommy is becoming exasperated with Henry, one of the guests, and murder is feared. Imagining the worse accordingly, Lupin sets off to discover what she can do.
The narrative then goes back in time to a few weeks before Christmas. Duds and her husband have recently inherited a manor house and a certain amount of money, but they have had a tough War and rationing is still taking its toll. In order to cheer everyone up, Duds thinks of having a small party to celebrate Christmas and the New Year, with guests staying for an entire week. While Tommy is dubious about getting enough food and drink to supply a party, and they have relatively little domestic help, but Duds is determined. It is decided to invite Duds’ cousins, twins Flo and Jo, who she was very close to as children. Now they are young women, Flo is married and seemingly content, while Jo is apparently less settled. With Flo’s husband Gordon, the list also includes Sandy, a man who has recently returned from Germany where he spent time as a Prisoner of War. When Henry, a man who Duds had a brief romance with when much younger, writes to ask if he and his second wife Irene can come, a party of eight seems possible. From the beginning all is not well. Henry is a talkative know it all, and his wife a bore if essentially good natured. Flo seems happy, and Gordon attentive and helpful. Sandy is morose and drinks a great deal, and Jo is just argumentative. As Duds struggles to keep the party fed and Tommy tries to eke out the drink, it is obvious that old romances, a difficult inheritance and general dissatisfaction is ruining any possible festive atmosphere, and disaster is beckoning.
This is a book which I greatly enjoyed, despite the possible lack of a sophisticated mystery. It shows the difficulties of post-war which extends beyond the shortages of food and drink, as people come to terms with the changes and even losses experienced over the previous few years. My favourite character is undoubtedly Lady Lupin, whose friends would acknowledge is far from methodical and calm in her suspicions and detection, but is nonetheless dogged in her pursuit of the truth. Apparently, she appears in other novels, and I will be keen to seek these out. I recommend this novel as very much of its time, and a very entertaining read.