So, from one Australian author last week – the entertainingly bonkers world of Max Afford’s Owl of Darkness – to two this week – the entertainingly bonkers world of the Little Sisters. This is my first foray into the Monthly Challenge over at Past Offences, with the year for December being 1941 and so falling perfectly into my TBR pile, and it’s been a joy to reacquaint myself with these literary ladies after frankly too long away. Shades of my reviews from earlier this year – Pamela Branch’s The Wooden Overcoat and Torrey Chanslor’s Our First Murder – resurface here, with delightful overtones of everyone’s favourite crime-solving couple found in the echoes of Kelley Roos’ The Frightened Stiff, too, as a murder in a boarding house gives way to suspicion, fear, mistrust, confusion, doubt, terror and…laughter. Because as well as being a well-plotted and beautifully light mystery, this is also very, very witty indeed.
There are no tentpole comic set-pieces like in The Wooden Overcoat – seriously, the ‘picnic’ chapter in that book still makes me smile – and it’s not that the Littles are especially arch or sharp-tongued in their prose, but there is a gentle kind of amusement behind everything that really works. It helps typify characters such as Neville Ward who is “about as exciting as a boiled egg” and in failing to make himself heard during a drunken conversation involving a great many other people is described as having his soprano voice “cut off at birth”. It helps perfectly capture fellow resident Camille “an ex-actress in her sixties who…made no bones about admitting that she was nearly forty”. And, crucially, it helps soften the edges on, and emphasises the charm of, runaway heiress and narrator Diana Prescott who, in less graceful hands, would probably have irritated the living hell out of me.There’s nothing especially audacious about what the Littles do here – you don’t ever have something revealed and feel like smacking yourself in the head for having missed it – but for 35 chapters over the 149 pages of this Rue Morgue Press edition they keep things moving speedily and in an uncontrived manner. The single large coincidence is gotten out of the way fairly quickly and doesn’t have an overall significant bearing on the plot, and the fact that every single chapter manages to end on a cliffhanger of one kind or another certainly keeps the pages flying. Considering that you don’t get off the footprint of the boarding house for the entire book – we make it as far as the back garden and the front porch, but no further – it’s no mean feat that the plot flies along with an abundance of mysterious happenings and largely free of the “Oh, come off it!” contortions it wouldn’t be unfair to anticipate in such a setup (even allowing for the conveiently-batty old crone who is the centre of much of what goes on).
Possibly the only downside to this is that there’s very little in the way of atmosphere – compare it to that Roos novel, for instance, which is a masterpiece of witty plotting and creepy context – although a couple of those cliffhangers do send a bit of a shiver through you (the end of chapter twenty-three, especially). The Inevitable Romance, too, feels a bit…weird, partly because you’re never too sure how seriously it’s being taken by either the characters or their authors; treated as someone tipping you the wink on one of the tropes of this subgenre, it’s probably fine, but treated seriously it’s a little discomfiting. In the book’s favour, however, is that from a small cast (getting smaller as the book progresses!) in a practically hermetically-sealed setting the guilty party is well-hidden for the most part and there’s a nice line in some subtle clueing once you realise what’s been going on.
No-one is going to be arguing that the Littles be elevated to Queen of Crime status any time soon, but they produced some very good books in their time and deserve to be more widely read. The fact that every book was a standalone has often been cited as a weakness, but in never being completely sure who’s under suspicion and where the proverbial (well, and sometimes not proverbial) axe may fall next they managed to circumvent a lot of the “cosy” feeling that has sunk many mystery comedies by removing either the mystery (in ensuring the survival of key series characters) or the comedy (in preserving their blushes for future installments). If you don’t know Constance and Gwenyth Little, this is a very good place to start.
And for another (and Christmas-themed, no less!) Little Sisters book, check out Kate’s review of The Black Headed Pins at CrossExaminingCrime here.