I’m nowhere near Puzzle Doctor/Brian Flynn levels of adoration yet, but there’s a good chance James Ronald could turn out to be one of my very favourite unheralded authors. Sure, he wrote in quite a range of genres — from ‘a family’s struggles in an unfamiliar environment’ to incident-packed impossible crime novels and, presumably, just about anything in between — and the frank unavailability of so many of his books is going to make tracking him down long and, given the spread of genres, at times possibly unrewarding work, but when he’s good, boy is he good. As in the case of the Osborne Family Murder — with ‘family’ being very much the key word here.
After a wonderful epigraph — A condemned man counts the days until his last on earth. Every summer the young Osbornes counted the days until Aunt Octavia’s annual visit — we meet 50-something patriarch Stephen Osborne, recently made redundant after 24 years in an office job he loathed and wondering how he can possibly support his family. His thoughts immediately turn to his wealthy half-sister Octavia who is due to visit the following week, and whose stern and unyielding nature has endeared her to no-one:
He would have to go to her and ask her to help him. Almost he would rather die than do it. But life is not as easy as that. You don’t die. You go on living, And to live you must have money, for the prime concerns of life are not love, hate, pride, and passion, but rent, rates, food, and clothing.
The opening 40 or so pages take time to introduce us to the Osbornes and the village of Gay Ladies in which they reside (“On one side of the green the cottages huddle against the village inn, like shy children clinging to their mother…and when it leaves them the road suddenly straightens, like a drunkard who spies a genteel acquaintance”) — Stephen’s concerns extending not only to his loving wife Edith but also his five children, the wilful, beautiful Dorothy, the book-obsessed Ann, the mechanically-minded and motorbike-fixated Michael, the daydreaming Marjory, and youngest Peter. There’s also lifelong helpmeet Hannah Gale, denied family status only by the crude measure of the blood in her veins, and a more loving and beautifully captured family you could not hope to encounter on the page.
It’s not merely that they care for each other — that Edith has “learned how to discipline her children without hurting their pride” — but that they also recognise and accept the flaws in each other with the patience family often requires. The disreputable Uncle Simon who is staying with them at the start of the book had been “a glamorous and amusing figure” to Ann at the age of ten, but “with the pitiless eyes of youth growing to maturity she saw him for what he was: a fat, rather soiled old man who led a messy life and garbed his failure in a tattered cloak of rakish impudence”. And yet “the one person she loved, apart from her immediate family, was that graceless reprobate Simon Osborne” — chastising him for drinking in the village pub where only “labourers and workmen” would be expected to frequent while obviously motivated by little more than a deep interest in his own security and happiness. Time and again, these beats of family life and the struggle they require win through, and, goddamn, it’s wonderful.
Into this, Aunt Octavia will sally a week early, a festering wound in the middle of their family life: “a temper is a luxury only the well-to-do can afford” observes Dorothy, and Aunt Octavia brings the full force of her temper to the scene, culminating in a criticism-laden luncheon that is as toe-curlingly awkward as it is gloriously cathartic for all involved (“…it was really a wonder that the scorching gaze [Hannah] directed at Miss Osborne did not burn through the autocrat’s garments and blister her stiff back”). Net result: Aunt Octavia, having only just arrived, decides to leave, but not before announcing that she’s — gulp — remade her will and that her brother’s family will now receive nothing upon her death. All she needs to do is visit her lawyer tomorrow to make it official…so, yeah, guess who ends up dead, strangled with a scarf while Ann sits unaware, reading Shakespeare’s Henry V, in the same room.
Put the obvious comparison with Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table (1936) aside, however, because form here the focus is not so much on the criminal investigation — that’s resolved in the final chapter, and in a manner you don’t have the information to anticipate — and more on how the crime affects the Osbornes. Because behind all the interviews, behind the scandal-mongering gutter press packing the road outside the house, baying at the Osbornes for any sniff of insight, behind the avaricious and invasive rubbernecking of the denizens of Gay Ladies…behind all of this is the deeply uncomfortable truth that one of these people must be guilty of this murder. “That was the devil of it,” Chief Constable Major Blackett is moved to admit to himself, “all these people were so confoundedly likeable.”
Thankfully, once the criminal investigations begins, led by Major Blackett and backed up by the cynical Inspector Burrows (“Burrows was not a psychologist; he had been reading psychology, which is a very different thing”), there’s still plenty of space for the Osbornes. It’s not a novel of detection at all — sure, some clues are presented, including a deeply-convenient witness testimony that feels like a comment on the unreliability of witness testimony — but more of an experiment in seeing the victims not as the deceased (indeed, a more deserving victim you could not hope for, especially when the motive comes to light — wowee, that’s one of the most striking I’ve yet encountered) but as those who are hounded all for the delight of an uncaring public and a press more interested in circulation figures than the people it shines its light upon (this was originally serialised under the title ‘Trial Without Jury’, which is far more striking — the titling conventions of GAD have a lot to answer for sometimes).
Octavia had not died — she had been killed. And murder makes its victims live. Octavia would never die. The swift tightening about her throat of the gaudy scarf which had ended her life had, at the same time, granted her a terrifying immortality.