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…
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.