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…”