The story concerns a weekend family house party taking place during World War II. The residence is owned by grandfather Richard and his ex-mistress Bella, and is a rather twee shrine to his first wife, a dancer called Serafita.
Present are: Bella; doctor Philip, his wife Ellen and their baby daughter; Claire (who is having an affair with Philip); Peta, a young volunteer nurse, in love with Stephen, the lawyer; Edward, Bella’s grandson, aged about 17 and thought to be “delicate”; Stephen, the lawyer and no relation – in love with Peta but feels he can’t propose as she’s the heiress.
The staff are reduced to Brough the gardener, Mrs Brough and a cook, Mrs Featherstone – known amusingly as “the Turtle” or “the old hag”.
There is scope for social and psychological satire after grandfather is found dead in one of the lodges after threatening to disinherit them all. The lodge is hemmed in by sanded paths that show every footprint, and rose bushes that drop their petals when slightly touched. The girls have visited during the day, but they were all wearing bathing suits owing to the heat and private swimming pool, and couldn’t have concealed the deadly hypodermic. Inspector Cockerill steps in to help, and is not too annoying as he establishes movements and alibis.
The book reveals a lot about current attitudes to emotions and mental health. The boy Edward has been “spoilt”, and encouraged to think he suffers from “fugues and automatism” when he doesn’t know what he is doing. (He may be epileptic and they should send him to a real doctor.) They repeat the myths about mad people being exceptionally strong and cunning, and Philip refers to Edward as a “hysteric” who can faint at will.
When Philip and Claire confess to Ellen that they are in love, she responds with: “My dear Claire - sheer Home Chat!” (Home Chat was a magazine something like People’s Friend.) Ellen preserves an air of ironic detachment, while retreating to her room to sob.
Sir Richard fulminates: “I realize more and more that none of the modern generation have any manners, reticence, or good-feeling!”
Stephen comments: “Claire takes things a bit desperately, always; she’s a bit sort of dramatic!” Both Peta and Claire are accused by the others of “showing off” and being “self-conscious”. Claire “pulls faces”, ie she doesn’t wear the aristocratic mask – “icily regular, splendidly null”. Peta gushes and flutters her hands.
Claire offers to help with the baby. Naturally, Ellen is not keen, but “she would not permit herself to have silly ‘feelings’.” When Sir Richard is found dead, Claire “would not pretend to a grief she did not feel”. Philip, the doctor, reflects that “the words of consolation and support came so glibly to one after a while”. Later, Ellen ponders Claire’s character: “She’s self-centred and not real; she’d have driven him mad with her emotionalism and scenes and play-acting.”
The constant denigrating of expressions of emotion as "hysterical" provided a template. Despite all this determined repression of feelings as “silly”, “unreal” and probably “common”, this family have constant emotional rows, especially over meals. “We had a great scene out here!” says Edward. “We all got most terribly emotional.” Emotions were seen as forces that must be controlled, or they would take you over and make you do ridiculous and "theatrical" things. See "fugues and automatism" again.
DÉCOR AND CLASS
Although there’s a war on, a tray carried across a garden by the elderly Mrs Featherstone is still “laden with the massive silver dishes which had appeared to a little ballet-dancer the hallmark of respectability”. The dishes even have heavy silver covers. Mrs F uses the word “oblige”. This was a running joke about cleaners: they pretended they were just “obliging” their lady employers, rather than working because they needed the money. When called to the witness stand, Mrs F proceeds “with a series of strange little bobs and curtsies”.
Brough, the gardener, is “ignorant and illiterate” and always opining about this and that. He refers to his wife “working her fingers to the bone for them as was born equal with us, I says, and by rights ought to be waiting on us, not us on them.” Like so many, he misunderstands “equality”, but he has a point.
At the inquest, the family are forced to mingle with “little men in shiny suits”. The coroner looks like a hippo, and polishes his nails in public (on his lapel?).
The drawing room in the big house is “cool”, with blue and white linen “summer curtains”, and grey and blue chintz, only marred by the simpering portrait of Serafita in pink. Mrs Brough has a “stuffy little parlour. Ugly lace curtains kept out the brave morning sunshine, and everywhere were fringes and bobbles and hideous china plates.” Bella regrets her little house in Yarmouth with its yellow front door. She has always felt awkward in the big house where her only task is to “do the flowers”.
Ellen prides herself "a little, and not offensively, on taking an intelligent interest (for a woman) in the progress of the war".
I defy you to work out who dunnit and how (the characters discuss the possibility of transporting poison in a fountain pen), but the identity of the murderer is cleverly salted. The denouement is splendidly over the top. It's an amusing read and almost as good as Green for Danger.
More Golden Age Mysteries here.