Monday, 27 October 2014

Death at Half-Term by Josephine Bell

published 1939







As they went in the excited babble of conversation was checked and the group of players, fantastic and incongruous in their stage clothes, broke up to admit them to their stricken leader.

He lay on his back near the show-case on which his own clothes and possessions were piled. He had not started to undress and the wig and beard were still in place, together with the stage bandage in which he had made his final appearance in the play. It was impossible to determine his colour on account of the grease-paint, but the stertorous breathing and the flaccid condition of his limbs made diagnosis obvious…. Sonia Fenton, who had watched with large frightened eyes, gave a loud sob.

‘This is his wife’, explained George Lemming in a hushed voice



observations: It is half-term this week in most English schools – a much needed break for children, staff and parents - so a good time to look at this strange book.

My friend Sergio, of the Bloody Murder/ Tipping my Fedora blog, covered this book for Rich Westwood’s Past Offences ‘books of 1939’ meme. (My book of 1939 was a detective story by Georgette Heyer, here on the blog.)

He didn’t like it much.

I commented that I liked the sound: a murder story of that era, set during a performance of Twelfth Night in a boys’ preparatory school, combined my favourite features, and had to be worth a try. Sergio generously passed on his copy of the book to me (could it be… that he couldn’t imagine ever needing to read it again?) and I started to read with some optimism.

Alas I was sadly disappointed. I have read and enjoyed other books by Josephine Bell (on the blog here and here), but this one is a dud. After I’d finished the book I went back and counted up: in the first 25 pages she introduces 42 characters by name – parents, staff, schoolboys, actors – and that doesn’t include the character names from Twelfth Night: the reader is expected to keep in her head who is playing at least eight of the cast, as Bell sometimes refers to them by character name, and who appears in the final scenes is relevant to the plot. I don’t normally complain about this, and (like most crime fiction readers) I’m pretty good at keeping characters and family arrangements in my head. (The only comparable book in my view is the dread Silmarillion by JRR Tolkien, which has more characters than pages.) But most of these characters are unnecessary and irrelevant, and I still have no idea who Hugh and Margaret were.

The murder isn’t that interesting. There is something to throw off timings, which is similar to an event in Dorothy L Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon. The schoolboys occasionally have an entertaining moment. There is nothing much to pin the book to 1939, although I did like the very Clothes-in-Books-ish revelation that the headmaster asked the visiting actors to dress properly for church: coats (I think meaning jackets) for the men, no sandals, and frocks not slacks for the girls. There is also an implication that nail varnish on toenails is rather fast.

But really not a lot to recommend this book. But thank you Sergio for passing it on!

The picture is from a 1917 book illustrating popular operas: close examination would tell you this was Puccini’s ‘shabby little shocker’ Tosca, but the photo did seem to resemble very closely the description above.

14 comments:

  1. Thanks for taking one for the team. She won't be appearing on my list anytime soon.

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    1. Quite right. If even I couldn't get on with this one - which should have ticked all my boxes - then no-one else will!

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  2. It felt like a lot but 42, seriously? The mind boggleth! Oh well, a dud id a dud is a dud! And yes, feel free to keep it ... :)

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    1. Yes, I promise - it's extraordinary isn't it? But it's never time completely wasted, I'm glad I've read it, even if not recommending to anyone else.

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  3. Moira - OK, first Sergio and then you. That's a Sign definitely that I ought to give this one a miss. Pity too, because I like the premise and context. Well, I think I'll be glad this time round for your kind cherry-picking. :-)

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    1. We live to serve, we're like the tasters checking the emperor's food for poison. Or something! Well, it's not like you are going to run out of books any time soon, is it?

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  4. Moira, 42 characters by name is way too much considering I have problems keeping track of even half a dozen characters. Too many characters can spoil the joy of reading a book.

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    1. I think it's something authors should be careful about. It annoys me when there are too many pointless characters in a book, I agree with you about removing the joy.

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  5. There are better Bells, like this one:

    http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2013/02/doctored-death-murder-in-hospital-1937.html

    Anthony Boucher liked Half-Term, which was reprinted in the US as Curtain call for a Corpse. It does seem quite bland though.

    One notable thing about Bell, she was one of the British writers to give her amateur detective not only a spouse but a family, that ages over the course of the series. Like Christie she also wrote straight novels and I think she may have been something of a straight novelist in disguise in her crime genre fiction.

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    1. Thanks for that info Curt - and I'll definitely take a look at the one you mention. This hasn't put me off her, because I too have read others which were much better.

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  6. Good information to have. Several suggestions for good ones. Glen had asked me a while ago if I wanted to try Port of London by this author. He had seen a review of it and it looked good.

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    1. Yes, I will read more by her, this one hasn't put me off altogether, and I have heard Port of London is good.

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  7. It's quite good to read books that aren't up to much sometimes. Reminds us that all authors can have off days!

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    1. You're right of course. And it hasn't put me off reading more by her, I'm making notes of ones others recommend.

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