Dear Elderly Patriarchs Who Hold the Purse-Strings and Delight in Making Everyone Jump and Dance on Cue: you’d live a lot longer if you stopped gathering your slavishly pecuniary-minded families around you before announcing a surprise amendment to their financial situations. Weren’t you supposed to be captains of industry at some point? Don’t your creators lay it on a bit thick with your business acumen, your cut-and-thrust tactics, and the rapier-like intelligence that resulted in you rising to the top? Gordon’s beer, man, exercise a little nouse; at least change the will and then tell them…
And so Martin Greenough gathers his nephews — the self-pitying alcoholic George, the boorishly blunt Hutchinson, the smoothly charming Francis, and the combative favourite Blackstone — to his Bostonian mansion in the days preceding his 75th birthday and, after the sort of spitefully petulant game-playing that marks his card as surely as anything else, tells them that they will no longer be able to rely on his handouts to survive. That ‘Cousin Mart’ himself is the very architect of their reliance — George’s sister Anne has been outcast since evidence emerged of her investing some of the stipend Martin allowed her — is simply part and parcel of the man. And his timing, dropping the announcement at dinner when Blackstone has brought his new fiancée along to meet the family, is an equally calculated piece of antagonism. But this time it will not stand: before the sun rises on the remnants of the celebratory birthday fireworks, one of the eight people in the house will have shot Martin Greenough dead.
This third work by Dorothy Blair and Evelyn Page feels like a very conscious deviation both structurally and tonally from their first brace of mansion-set murder mysteries. The first half of the book is taken up with observing the lion in its den, and while for my tastes the repeated examples of Cousin Mart’s piques of manipulative pettifoggery go on a bit — insisting on always being the first in a room, forcing other people to move from bright hallways to darkened studies for meetings so as to disorient them, always goading and poking and insinuating his displeasure — it does capture the strained atmosphere beautifully. I also can’t help but feel that this choking mist of Cousin Mart pervading all corners of all events is intended as a veil for a few assumptions into which Blair and Page wish to lead you…and their success depends entirely on how willing you are to submit to the tactic. For my part, I grew a little bored of the repeating refrain and so had time to question a couple of key developments, but your mileage will doubtless vary.
Cometh the fireworks, cometh the murder, and cometh Detective Sergeant Moran and Constable McBeath, as gloriously casual a double-act as you’ll ever encounter: McBeath’s borderline-rebellious lack of airs and graces when dealing with his superior officer a quiet delight. Moran, too, brings his own ideals to proceedings: dismissing the grief of Cousin Mart’s housekeeper/lover Edith Warden because it is “slurred…with impropriety” and keen to jump at the merest shadow of suspicion or implication — he’s not quite a parody, there’s a little too much investment in his character for that, but he’s not too far off. And once the stage is finally set for Detective Inspector Kane (I’m still pretty sure he’s not actually been given a first name in the prose of this triumvirate) to swan in for the final 50 pages and lay it all bare we have everything we need to piece together the skein.
Well, no, almost everything. There’s a staggeringly late declaration of an important clue that’s all the more frustrating for the potential to’ve mentioned it sooner, but apart from that it’s difficult to fault Kane’s investigation and the way supposition is mixed in with fact and innuendo. A few servings must be swallowed to be led completely astray, and I’d say of the three key ideas highlighted by Kane as the key to the puzzle only one got past me, but I didn’t catch the killer, and the Queen-esque near-final line reveal is a beautifully brutal touch on which to end. The writing, too, is notably more polished from their (not-unpolished) previous brace, with these people really feeling like people — good heavens, if you don’t feel for Blackstone’s fiancée Stella, or for Hutchinson’s wife Amelia and the way her “little weakness” is treated then there might be a hole in your chest — and the lingering, too-oppressive mood only really intruding when you realise how perfectly brilliant many of the compact turns of phrase typically are:
After a bad night, they had awakened to a world removed from death and violence by the passage of only six or seven hours and the serving of their ordinary breakfasts.