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.
The tone throughout combines an Australian’s command of dry throwaways matched with an Englishman’s sarcastic remove, with one character “behaving with the urbanity of a man who doesn’t allow his temper to get ahead of his intellect” and the local policeman conducting his work “under the ferocious hirsute gazes of by-gone custodians of law and order” (plus, of course, a great many others I’m reluctant to spoil). There is, you’ll have gathered, that faintly-restrained sense of mischief sedately running amok rather than anything close to grand slapstick set pieces – Wright reminds me of Constance and Gwenyth Little on their better days, and maintains an admirable fealty to the rules she is picking apart.
This means that she also serves up a classically rugose piece of detective plotting, with elements inflated to catch your eye while seams of red herrings weave quietly amongst them (I was following one false trail right to the end, missing the killer completely) – odd to think that the preponderance of misleading clues was a complaint one of the readers had which lead to this being rejected…did they not know that that’s how this type of crime fiction works? Well, we’ll never know. At 170 B-format pages this lacks real complexity but also has no qualms about getting on with things, and Wright demonstrates an economy of prose that always goes over well with me – in particular the description of the murder when it happens is a startlingly compact piece of writing, and really quite special to witness.
Verse Chorus Press, via their Dark passage imprint, have done a great job producing this, too. The introduction contains the original cover and the front page of Wright’s original manuscript, helping me date this book as above and providing some lovely context. That they list all six of Wright’s published novels in the front gives me hope for the others seeing the light of day soon (they have already published her debut and follow-up, So Bad a Death). It would be no less than June Wright deserves on this evidence.