#349: Family Matters (1933) by Anthony Rolls

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Detective fiction’s Golden Age produced many very witty books — Case for Three Detectives (1936), etc — but Family Matters (1933) by Anthony Rolls is to my mind the first time that the process of killing someone is genuinely funny.  As a deployment of the detached third-person narrator it might represent the pinnacle of the genre.  In many ways, this stands apart from the remainder of GAD in the way The Ladykillers (1955) stands apart from other Ealing comedies: it is savage and unsparing, and not afraid to show you the darkness beneath…but done with such a surety of touch that you don’t know whether a sentence is a joke or a profound truth until you finish it.

My advice is to know as little as possible going in — even the Dorothy L. Sayers review quoted in the introduction goes too far, I’d suggest — and simply be aware that this is at heart a Village Poisoning Tale.  Robert Arthur Kewdingham and his wife Bertha exist in a frustrated marriage in the small locality of Shufflecester and, broadly, as the experience begins to rub on them, well, someone is going to get poisoned.  That makes it sound, I know, like any one of about five thousand similar books published in this era, but for plot you need and should know nothing more.

So, why is this generic setup so worth your time?  Simply put, because it excels in every single aspect of writing: in structure, in tone, in character, in narrative voice, in cleverness, in pretty much any quality you desire in your fiction this is confident and staggeringly rich.  Firstly, it’s funny, actually legitimately funny, in that superbly understated way British fiction from this era seems to have a significant market share in:

Mrs. Chaddlewick drove her own car — an Upton-Ryder saloon — and she drove it as well as the average woman does drive a car; that is to say, she made it go from one place to another.

Or, how about:

With an awkward fumbling movement he fished up his monocle, fixed it over his eye, and glared at the slim trees.  He looked as tough he was trying to find fault with something — like an English traveller in a foreign land.

But then, just as you think you have a hand on Rolls’ wryly removed tincture, he will blindside you with moments of aching, nerve-shredding brilliance like this:

He wrote the most unpleasant quotations on slips of paper and put them in Bertha’s work-basket.  Sometimes he handed them to her with affected courtesy.  It seemed as if he knew by heart all the bitter and perverse things which have ever been written about women, all the hollow, sentimental cantings and rantings in praise of chastity, prudence, motherhood, mother love, duty and faith — all the shoddy gibble-gabble by which righteous men have tried to keep their females in order.  In these literary assaults he made a masterly use of Shakespeare and the Bible, and it was extraordinary how he knew where to go for the most rancid morsels of libel or satire.

Seriously, go back and read that again.

The plot unfolds inside this prose bowl with a horrible inevitability.  The people involved are shown from both their own and others’ perspectives, and as such we have a ring-side seat for the patterns that emerge, which must surely be one of the canniest deployments of poison the genre has seen.  We watch the murderous intentions unfold, we know who wishes to kill whom, and so in many ways this is the archetypal inverted mystery…but even there Rolls has a surprise or two up his sleeve, which again causes this to stand out from its brethren.

Whether Rolls blenches come the end will be a matter of hot debate, and almost makes me wish this was the subject of a Spoiler Warning post, because, dude, there is a lot to unpack at the close.  Is it ambitious, is it stupid, is it clever, is it lazy?  It’s certainly bold and will please as many people as it frustrates, but I find myself oh-so-firmly in that first camp.  Sure, I closed the book and sat for a good minute or two trying to get my head around it all, but I think that’s part of the genius of it: these people get under your skin, you feel their value and purpose, and it’s superb to see someone be so — it’s not really the right word, I’m aware — experimental at the end of such a story.

But, well, don’t go in thinking this is all about the ending, as there’s so much more to enjoy along the way.  This is for me a legitimate forgotten classic uncovered by the British Library Crime Classics series, devilishly clever, hard to forget, the antithesis of the mansuetude such a plot from a neglected author might suggest, and leaving me with plenty to ponder when a character’s “hot” moustache leaves him looking “like a tiger-man” — ahhh, GAD, I love you when you’re like this…

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See also

Sandra @ Composed Almost Entirely of Books: The relationship between Bertha and Robert Arthur is genuinely tense and even tragic – we get to see things from both points of view and it is clear that they would both have been vastly happier with different people.  Family, as can be gathered from the title, is a central theme – the Kewdinghams’ complacent certainty that being a Kewdingham is all that counts; Bertha’s ‘inferior’ family causing her to be an outsider and her own lack of family close by for support; Robert Arthur’s neglect of his wife and son for his all-absorbing interests.

Guy @ His Futile Preoccupatons: Family Matters is an unusual crime novel for its structure and its conclusion, but it’s also separated from the herd by its attitude towards women. The court at Shufflecester, for example, is “bleak and hideous,” and we are told that “it is only possible to find this degree of squalor, of neglect and of ugliness, in courts of law–places where the sane influence of women has not yet penetrated.” There’s also mention of sex with a hint dropped of “three hours in a disused gravel-pit.” Anthony Rolls seems to understand the lonely, treacherous path to murder trod by the otherwise respectable member of society.

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For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The D.A. Draws a Circle from last week because of a possible spoiler relating to the victims that I’ll not divulge here.

And on my Just the Facts Golden Age Bingo card, this fulfils the category Pseudonymous author.

28 thoughts on “#349: Family Matters (1933) by Anthony Rolls

    • I’ve really not read anything quite like this before, which might only be an acknowledgement of how little I’ve read and how broad this genre is. I think it’ll split opinion pretty equally on all manner of fronts, but I think it’s superb and would highly recommend it if you’re curious.

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  1. Really glad that you enjoyed this one – as you say, there is so much more going on under the surface than the standard set up would suggest. And the ending suits the book well, I think.

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      • Would definitely agree that Scarweather is not nearly as good. It’s like a rather stretched horror story, with some nice atmospherics and touches of humour but with very little mystery – there’s an obvious solution, but, wait, could it be too obvious to be true? Oh. Apparently not – and it has far less deft characterisation. You do learn a fair bit about pots though.

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  2. You actually awarded this with five stars? Admittedly, the story is well written and the characters are interesting, but Rolls was unable to deliver a solution for his unusual narrative and premise. So he walked out on the solution and, somehow, almost everyone thinks that was a masterstroke. It wasn’t. And I hated it.

    That being said, I’m probably too much of a purist to appreciate these kind of mysteries.

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    • Yes, one reader even says in his review that he couldn’t even make out whether it was suicide or murder ! Certainly not for me !

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    • See, I’d consider myself something of a purist, too, but then someone having the chutzpah to do what Rolls does here — especially after such a confident story — is the sort of thing that I admire. It’s not always successful, and I’ve seen attempts at a similar thing that haven’t worked half as well because the author refused to commit to it, but I think he knew he was being rather…elitist, let’s say, and I like the confidence of that.

      But I can totally see why people wouldn’t go for it; I’m not sure I’d want this to be a book people experience too early in their GAD reading, for one thing, as it would furstrate a great any people who eren’t prepared for what’s coming!

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  3. As I posted on Twitter, this was one of the books that made me want to start a mystery fiction blog though I haven’t actually written about it there.

    As you point out, the narration is really wry and often laugh-out-loud funny and I think it is very cleverly plotted. Nor do I mind the ending at all – in fact I consider it a strength of the book, though I do understand Tomcat’s frustration with it.

    Glad you liked it so much!

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    • I especially enjoy the action of fate, and how the narrator acknowledges that sometimes these things come about purely because of coincidence…it’s wonderfully clever use of one of more unpopular conceits of a novel of this sort.

      I wonder if the varying responses to the ending are what kept this from being better known prior to reprinting. I can see it putting people off, as there’s a lot of scope to frustrate.

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      • I think you could be right about why this was forgotten. I think there are some interesting questions about guilt that could be addressed that are also a little glossed over.

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  4. Very glad you like this one. Excellent review. I’m so pleased the BL agreed to republish it, despite the fact that it’s far from orthodox. I’m very keen that the Crime Classics should offer as much variety as possible.

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    • Yeah, the scope of thesereis — as I said on Facebook — is part of the success of this series. I’ll be the first to admit that not everything in it appeals to me, but it’s definitely becoming a series that someone with any leve o interest in this sort of fiction will be able to find something for their tastes in. That’s a measure of something of this ilk doing its job correctly — full credit to you, Rob, and the team. Keep ’em coming!

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  5. There is hope for you yet! I’m amazed that you were delighted with this book given your predilection for dissecting puzzles.

    Brilliant book. A woman who read the book last year, then read my review left a comment me asking me how I interpreted the ending. I refused to post it on my blog, but after she was persistent I emailed it to her. Despite what you state as the experimental quality of the book’s finale Vulliamy does in fact cleverly state what actually happened and who did what. I happen to think that there are multiple villains in this book and multiple crimes and I offered up statements from the text that support that reading. It may not, however, be the only interpretation. And once again you can thank me for introducing this book to Martin Edwards who only heard of it after reading my post in 2014. It’s one of the few books I’ve longed to see reprinted and was overjoyed to see it appear in the British Library Crime Classics catalog last year.

    You ought to check out the crime novels of “Guy Cullingford”, pseudonym for a woman writer named Constance Taylor. She has a similar wry humor and a subversion in her plotting and narrative structure. Her mysteries tend to be not easily categorized with elements of many different subgenres just like FAMILY MATTERS.

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    • Yeah, given how this turns out it wouldn’t be my expected sort of thing to rave about, but I think I just like books that commit to what they do — hence my love of Halter’s baroque impossibilities, and Penny’s puzzle-heavy plots, and the delight in discovering Crofts’ detail-obsessed minutiae. Rolls does that here, having the courage of his convictions to drop an ending at the end of a supremely confident piece of narrative that he knew plenty of people would probably hate. I admire that.

      I’ve heard of Guy Cullingford somehow — certainly I have a few of her books on am Amazon wishlist as they’ve been released on Kindle by The Murder Room over here — but thanks for the extra recommendation.

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