Full credit for my awareness of Australian author June Wright has to go to Kate over at CrossExaminingCrime, who reviewed Wright’s debut Murder in the Telephone Exchange last year and made it sound fabulous. Rather than re-evaluate that book, I thought I’d go for one of Wright’s later efforts and so find myself with this, her…well, it’s a little complicated placing this in the timeline. Derham Groves’ excellent introduction informs us that Wright wrote this after her fourth book – making it, you’re correct, her fifth – but this 2015 imprint is in fact its first publication as it was rejected by two publishers, so therefore it’s her seventh book as it comes after the six she published. Oh, except she also had another book rejected, too, but the manuscript for that has been lost, so this is…hang on…carry the one…well, work it out for yourselves. And in the grand tradition of Derek Smith’s Come to Paddington Fair and Hake Talbot’s vanished-from-history unnamed third novel, this joins my collection of “Seriously, this was rejected?” books that make one question precisely what or indeed if anyone was thinking at the time.
Fundamentally, what you have here is an English Country House Murder transferred to a small, remote Australian hotel (indeed, almost literally, as there’s virtually nothing distinctive about the setting that couldn’t change “Teal Lagoon” to “So-and-So Lake” and take place in my country): a cast of people gathers, one of them is killed, whodunnit? With the authorities (such as they are) content to write the whole thing off as an accident and the other guests curiously unaffected, renowned crime novel reviewer Charles Carmichael takes it upon himself to solve the murder…because, yes, we’re also in the kind of slightly self-aware pastiche so beloved of Edmund Crispin and Leo Bruce. Cue references to Ogden Nash’s Had I But Known school, complaints when characters start to break the rules, and conversations like:
“I can’t understand why you must get so intense about murders and blunt weapons and things.”
“The detective story is just as much an artistic expression-” began Charles defensively.
“You see what I mean, dear?” she interrupted kindly. “So boring when you become earnest.”
A reminder of the tropes, even when done as well as it is here, falls down when there’s no other humour to support it, though, becoming rather akin to a drunken uncle telling
me you the same story over and over again at Christmas dinner. Wright is, however, a very sly and witty writer whose ignominy at having to face the rejection of this book not once but twice boggles when she characterises like this:
Years of easy living and the rigid social code of Anglo-Indians had left Mrs. Dougall incapable of adjusting herself to a new and cruder life. She clung to the old standards by building a protecting wall of memories of the halcyon Indian years between herself and the sordid realities of the present, behaving, thinking, speaking, and even dressing precisely as she had done then. Being a strong-minded woman, she succeeded in bolstering up the Major’s flagging morale, so that he almost completely joined her in the happy self-deception. Without her, no doubt, he would have long since pressed his old service revolver to his highly coloured forehead.