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.