[An afternoon tennis party at the Haswell’s house: the hostess is speaking:]
‘There now! The young people have finished their set, and the others have only just begun theirs; I wanted to arrange it so that Mr Drybeck should play with the good ones!... Well how did it end my dears? Who won?’
‘Oh the children!’ said Kenelm Lindale, with the flash of a rueful smile. ‘Delia and I were run off our feet!’
‘You are a liar!’ remarked Abigail Dearham, propping her racquet against a chair, and picking up a scarlet cardigan…
Mrs Lindale… sat down in a chair beside her hostess, her coat draped across her shoulders.
Abigail Dearham, a very pretty girl, with a mop of chestnut curls, and wide-open grey eyes, looked at her with the interest she accorded to everyone who came in her way.
commentary: Georgette Heyer writes a good detective story when she puts her mind to it: the clever and hilarious Envious Casca is far and away my favourite, and this one doesn’t challenge its place – but it’s a pleasant enough read. (In fact the solution to Envious Casca is described in the book, though only someone who has read both books would see that). Abigail seems at times to have wandered in from one of Heyer’s regency romances – the heroine of Black Sheep is also called Abigail, and wide-open eyes and mops of curls are a giveaway too. I’m going to go out on a limb here, way into spoiler territory: Abigail is never seriously going to be suspected of any crime.
But she’s pretty much alone in that respect. The plot has what I think of as Murder-She-Wrote Syndrome: a most unpleasant person is murdered, and every one of a large group of characters is given a hefty motive and something suspicious in his or her background. The rather nice Chief Inspector Hemingway has to sort through the distracting side-plots to reach the truth.
Georgette Heyer was a dreadful and unabashed snob, which sometimes doesn’t matter – but here I thought this meant that one character’s wrong-doing was treated very lightly indeed. And the Chief Inspector is very cutting about his sidekick: ‘inevitably reared in the hazy and impracticable beliefs of democracy-run-riot’ with ‘deep and uninformed’ views.
But as ever there are some very funny bits to make up for it. I loved the way all the gentry in the village are forever telling the police whom they suspect did it, with full details – it makes a refreshing change from the usual solidarity, stiff upper lip and refusal to talk, and they are all completely horrible and unabashed about it. No blaming it on The Passing Tramp here, Curtis Evans, or one of the servants or yokels: they all know perfectly well that one of their group must be guilty, and they are all keen to point the finger at each other.
There’s a moment when the reliability of the church clock is under discussion, and a mention of changing the hour for summertime. There is then an embarrassing silence:
It was apparent that Abby, Charles and Inspector Harbottle were all wrestling with an unspoken problem. It was Harbottle who first reached a conclusion.There is a pedigree dog in the book called Ultima Uplift, which sounds like a splendid name for a range of bras. And there is an interesting discussion over whether the village would accept an unmarried couple in their midst.
‘Earlier!’ he said.
‘No, she’s right’ said Charles. ‘Later!’
‘Do we put the clocks on or back?’
As a crime story there is far too much going on – there’s a mysterious Pole, trouble with the Catchment Board (whatever that is), and we really need a map to try to follow the layout of the village. Early on there is discussion of a change in the layout of a house, a door into the garden, a way of moving round the house – I assumed all this was going to be relevant but it has no bearing on anything at all.
One of the assumptions regarding the time of death seems ridiculous, and any competent reader has spotted the issue early on and is waiting 250 pages for the Chief to catch up.
So although the book is too long, I enjoyed it for the snide remarks, witty jokes, and setpiece scenes such as the one where Inspector Hemingway goes to collect evidence from the lower-class Ditchling family, who gather in force to entertain us all.
The tennis players are from the State Library of Queensland.
More tennis parties in books on the blog from EM Delafield and Ethel Lina White.