Old age, and the perceptions thereof, is endlessly fascinating to me. I don’t really know why and have no intention of going on the importance of recognising the experience of the individual rather than lumping an entire socio-economic group together — that’s how wars get started, after all — or maundering on about mortality. Instead, following on from Agatha Christie’s reflections in the unexpectedly-enjoyable A Caribbean Mystery, I wanted to use Eilís Dillon’s debut novel, Death at Crane’s Court, as a counter-point because it takes an alternative view that makes the comparison worthwhile. Hopefully.
The first key difference is that Dillon herself was a mere stripling of 33 when she published this novel set in a nursing-home-cum-hotel, whereas Christie wrote her own exploration of old age and infirmity at a contemporaneous 74. Inevitably this leads to a few key differences — Christie’s book is about old age in many ways whereas Dillon’s just uses it as a backdrop, for one — but chiefly what struck me is how much Dillon’s old folk feel like background characters just to add a bit of whimsy and charm and oddity to proceedings, and how consequently they don’t really come out of this very well.
When Professor Daly tells the newly-arrived George Arrow — banished to Crane’s Court with a dicky heart at age 36 and facing the prospect of living out his days bereft of excitement or strain — that “We’re all a trifle odd here,” it follows the witty passage in which George has “dropped into the self-seeking invalid’s routine of Crane’s Court”. He begins to obsess over the temperature of his room, the position of his chair, the exact time of day at which he does certain things, the way the maid should lay the fire in his room…in short, he is becoming “selfish, particular, and critical of what was done for him”. And yet the further I got through the book, the less witty this passage seemed. It becomes increasingly apparent that Dillon has no sympathy for these people, with only Daly himself — who “could never take himself seriously enough to behave like one of them” — escaping her miasma of mockery. Well, except that ‘miasma’ implies a light touch, and Dillon is anything but light in her dismissal.
A key example: early on, following the fatal stabbing of John Burden, the unpopular and boorish new manager of the Court, it is revealed that one of the characters is a convicted murderer. Sensation. When this character is eventually identified, the justification of the murder is given thus: the man considers himself something of a gourmet, and when his maid served him watery sprouts he shot her. Ho-ho-ho, I guess? Later on, someone buys him a cookery book so that he can try out some cooking in the Court’s kitchen (it will be obvious to anyone who has ever read, say, a single book that this character is not the murderer we’re looking for) and he is pathetically grateful. This represents pretty much the entirety of that character’s involvement and arc herein.
Now, yes, there is a way in which this could be played for broad and tasteless laughs. Tom Sharpe made an entire career out of this…I guess “comedy” is the closest word for it. But Dillon isn’t writing that kind of book. Indeed, her own comedy is very good at times and falls decidedly on the gentler side of ribbing, like the phone call (from Daly, of course, because he’s such a good sport) to the Guards upon the discovery of the body:
“What’s that? Of course I haven’t touched anything!… Well, how could I telephone you without handling the telephone?… Yes, it’s here in the room… Come to think of it, I needn’t have called you at all. Next time I’ll let you find your own body…”
This is not, then, arch satire or some Grand Guignol comedy after the heart, spleen, and other organs of Pamela Branch’s The Wooden Overcoat. An old duffer shoots his maid over an issue too minor to even qualify as a trifle and gets ten years in jail because, well, that’s the sort of crazy nonsense these loopy old fools get up to, what? Trivialising something of this ilk in this way while in the midst of another dual murder investigation is, to my palette, immensely distasteful and disrespectful. And if it stopped there then it’s just be one misjudged step in an otherwise-enjoyable debut novel. Aaaah, if only it had stopped there…
Old (inevitably) Mrs. Robinson, dubbed the ‘Queen Bee’ by Daly (and perhaps others, we’re ever told), is presented as the figurehead of a coterie of rasping, hen-like harridans who rule the Court like a…ah, hell, pick your own simile. Their unconscionable actions extend to such terrors as, erm, wanting to sit in the nice room for afternoon tea and, uh, tending to the flowerbeds to make the place presentable. What fiends! Certainly, it is revealed that the collective met at some point and the notion of poisoning Burden was floated, but by the same token the housemaid Maggie on her first appearance blurts out such a suggestion to George Arrow and she is someone whose plight were are intended to find deserving of sympathy. The distinction here, surely, is that Maggie is young and such indiscretions are acceptable at a young age. Oldies should know better. But they don’t. Because they’re all such awful, awful people.
Contrast this with Mr. Rafiel in Christie’s book and, well, there’s no comparison. He’s actually a crotchety old bastard and hugely unsympathetic into the bargain, but then becomes something really quite marvellous by that novel’s close (it still tears me up a bit now, it really does). Dillon seems content to demonise her old people on account of their being old as if that alone is enough: you’re old, you have an opinion and are stuck in your ways, therefore you must be wrong. It’s…uncomfortable reading, to say the least.
And then we come to Mrs. Fennell. Lovely old, cat-keeping, demented Mrs. Fennell, a character so jaw-droppingly insulting that I’m probably going to have to type this in shifts to get through it. Mrs. Fennell keeps cats. Lots of cats. Which she periodically murders and buries under the plants in her garden to fertilise them. And she is frequently visited by — and has enjoyable conversations with — Sir Rodney Crane, who was the original owner of the Court. And who died over a hundred years ago. In case you were wondering, and you may have missed it among all that subtle characterisation there, Mrs. Fennell is supposed to be a bit batty.
If you’re hoping, like I was, that these ghostly visitations were going to reveal some clever form of misdirection where it’s shown how someone calculatedly and coldly presents themself as a ghost an callously takes advantage of an old woman who should only really engender our sympathy, then you’ve not been paying attention. Conveniently, there is no ‘Sir Rodney’ — it’s all Mrs. Fennell walking around on her own and seeing things that she then claims the ghost told her (and probably making some stuff up, too, because she’s batty) and she was present for the first murder and saw the murderer in action, but she of course becomes all flustered and incoherent on cue so that this element of the mystery can stay safely a mystery for the remaining two-thirds of the book. Thankfully we know that this is accurate because, well, the plot requires it. So thank Heaven for the occasional moments of clarity that puncture the experience of dealing with dementia.
I’m now just over a thousands words in and this is the incredible thing: most of what is discussed above is contained within the first quarter of the book. Once the investigation gets underway we jettison the infirm for such crucial plot lines as “the attractive young widow goes to the dentist with the young nominal hero” and “the elderly matriarch wants her wastrel son to marry into money”. Crucially, the old folk have served their purpose: to make us thankful we’re not them and put our band of younger folk in a position where we root for them because they’re not nuts. And if you’re holding out hope for an element of generational crossover, don’t: the one aspect of that which could have made this entire enterprise somewhat less sour is abandoned for no good justification beyond a shrug and “Well, some people are just shit at their jobs, aren’t they?” (I’m paraphrasing here).
I have defended some contentious issues within classic crime fiction in the past, and I stand by that defence. This easy dismissal, this manufactured ill-feeling, is far more sinister because it’s possible to look at it now and see nothing wrong in these issues: old people can be a bit weird, wassaproblem? Writing from a position of ignorance is one thing, but refusing to acknowledge the issues behind something which can be easily encountered, and going out of your way to make a mockery of those people, that’s just unforgivable. Dillon died in 1994 at the age of 74, and I sincerely hope that she was treated with more sympathy in her later years than she was able to summon up here of her own volition.
Incidentally, how is anyone on the pronunciation of “Eilís”? In my mind I’m saying “Eyeless”, but I’m aware that this — ‘Eyeless’ Dillon — makes her sounds like some sort of grizzled Wild West lawman. Anyone got any clarification on this?
The far wiser, saner, more tolerant, and more widely read head than I that is Kate at crossexaminingcrime read this and enjoyed it much more than I did, so be sure to check out her thoughts for appropriate balance. And then pick a side — this is war! Ahem, sorry. Got carried away there for a moment.