The Complete Steel, also published as The Stately Home Murder by Catherine Aird
[Readers are following a coach party round a stately home – they have reached the armoury]
It was a truly fearsome collection.
Weapons sprouted from the walls, antique swords lay about in glass cases, chainmail hung from hooks and – as if this weren’t enough – several suits of armour stood about on the floor.
‘Whoopee,’ shouted Michael. ‘Look Mum, this is what I’ve been doing…’
He darted off down the centre of the armoury, shadow boxing with the coat of war of some long-forgotten knight of a bygone age.
‘Got you,’ he said to one of them, landing a blow on the breastplate. It resounded across the hall.
[Looking at a picture at the top of a staircase]
The sitter must have been looking at the artist because whichever way Mrs Pearl Fisher looked at the portrait, the portrait looked back at Mrs Pearl Fisher. It was of a woman, a woman in a deep red velvet dress, against which the pink of a perfect complexion stood out. But it was neither her clothes – which Mrs Fisher thought of as costume – nor her skin which attracted Mrs Fisher. It was her face.
It had a very lively look indeed.
And of one thing Mrs Fisher was quite sure. Oil painting or not, the woman in the portrait had been no better than she ought to have been.
commentary: I am sneaking another one in for Rich Westwood’s 1969 book challenge over at Past Offences - this is very different from my previous entry, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.
The Aird book could also be listed in my recent Guardian piece on book titles from Hamlet:
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel-- it’s a very reasonable title: the words mean a suit of armour, and that’s where the corpse is going to be found in the crime story. But still – the book has also been published as The Stately Home Murder, which is much more helpful.
Revisits thus the glimpses of the moon.
Anyway, it’s a little gem – short, no waste of time, and hilariously funny. Perhaps Aird was hitting her stride: this was her 3rd Sloan and Crosby book, and I liked it better than the previous two (The Religious Body is on the blog here).
The murder plot is fine (though raises a few questions – the line about the rightful Earl is treated rather strangely) but the real joy comes in the clash of cultures as Inspector Sloan goes to investigate in a stately home where death has taken a noble family by surprise. Sloan is accompanied by Crosby, a sidekick who is a refreshing change from the moody, the clever, the perfect companions found in so many crime stories. Crosby is not very clever, and tends to say the wrong thing. And he is unable to fit the long aristocratic name of Lord Henry into the box on his form. (Henry Augustus Rudolfo Cremond Cremond.)
Sloan is neutral – no Bolshy chip on his shoulder, but no automatic deference for the nobs. He has trouble finding his way around:
‘Hackle is in the knot garden if you want to see him.’The body has been found inside the armour in the armoury, and there is a fine moment when the body is being photographed by the police:
Inspector Sloan hesitated. A knot garden sounded like a noh play. ‘Where’s that?’
‘Just this side of the belvedere’ said the steward, trying to be helpful. ‘By the gazebo.’
It was like learning a new language.
‘A bit more to your right’And later, when THE suit of armour has been removed, ‘ the armoury looked like a gigantic game of chess after a good opening move.’
‘Now a close-up.’
It’s like a much funnier version of TV series Downton Abbey.
As a 1969 book: although some of the comedy is broad, the theme of the working classes paying their half-crowns to visit a stately home is very much of its time – the practice had started some time before, but expanded hugely during the 1960s. Splendidly, the Lady Eleanor tries to get entrance money out of the policemen coming to investigate the crime. (She doesn’t succeed: Inspector Sloan is worried about his expenses.)
The suit of armour is from Wikimedia. The (no doubt highly respectable and virtuous) woman in scarlet above is blog favourite William Orpen’s portrait of Madame Errazuriz from the Athenaeum website, first used in this Agatha Christie entry. My one criticism of Aird’s book is that the character in the picture – known locally as Bad Betty – could have featured more.