#517: Murder in the Family, a.k.a. The Murder in Gay Ladies (1936) by James Ronald

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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.

This is a family shown supporting and caring for each other at the limit of their endurance, though without the discordant katzenjammer of demonstrative speechifying, and evincing those tiny moments which makes the time spent with them so rewarding — witness what I shall only call the Jimmy Milligan Experience for one, or the stand-up-and-applaud brilliance of the Lovers’ Reconcilliation.  The agony of reversals and revelations in the final chapters also don’t feel like an author simply trying to spice things up a bit, either, but instead the natural consequence of all the horrors they have had to endure.  And just as you think Ronald has dropped the ball and won’t break your heart after all, he gives you a heart-shattering motivation for our killer that sets the whole enterprise on new wheels before the close.

I’ve fallen in love, once again, with something that’s so far from the sort of thing I’d expect to like that I honestly don’t know what to make of it — this hit me in the same way Family Matters (1933) by Anthony Rolls and The Voice of the Corpse (1948) by Max Murray also completely got under my armour, though I love the Osbornes far more deeply than anyone in either of those books.  I’m especially grateful to John Norris for putting me onto this title, because it will sit in my brain for a long, long time yet, and if Ronald wrote anything else even half as affecting as this then he’s an author I can see myself loving in the years ahead.  All I have to do now is track the damn things down.

~

James Ronald reviews on The Invisible Event:

Novels

Six Were to Die, a.k.a. The Dark Angel (1932)
Murder in the Family, a.k.a. The Murder in Gay Ladies (1936)
They Can’t Hang Me (1938)

Short stories

‘Too Many Motives’ (1930)

26 thoughts on “#517: Murder in the Family, a.k.a. The Murder in Gay Ladies (1936) by James Ronald

  1. Thanks for the review, which made me run out and source a copy. And I managed to secure one! Hope the puzzle is as compelling as the characterisation and sentimentality. Your comment reminded me of some of Christianna Brand’s works, populated with people you grow to care for, only to discover one of them is the killer. 😨

    Liked by 1 person

    • Man, does everyone else have better book-buying connections than me? The notion that you’ve just gone out and immediately found a copy of this is…wonderful in a way, but also I know how rare and expansive Ronald’s books can be. Who’s your source? We need to know!!! 🙂

      The connection to Brand is an apposite one, and I should have noticed that myself. Ronald has a real talent with letting a small action or piece of behaviour tell hugely in how two characters feel towards each other. Unlike Brand it doesn’t seem to be present in all his work, but he’s done great things working it in here.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There are actually a handful of decently-priced copies available in the USA market; there are one or two left on Amazon UK. Thanks for the compliment regarding my book-searching abilities; being an English Literature major helps, I suppose! (In terms of a long-standing history of searching for all sorts of books, through which one accrues much experience…)

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  2. You’ll hate the analogy, but your review reminded me of what I loved about Christianna Brand’s Fog of Doubt. You have this great cast that you get wrapped up in, and it becomes unfathomable that one will be the killer. Not just that you can’t imagine any one character being guilty, but its the impending impact on the family once guilt is revealed.

    I do love a good gut punch ending that leaves you feeling haunted for days. Death and the Maiden by Q Patrick and The Rose in Darkness by Christianna Brand are two I’ve been lucky enough to read recently.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As a novel of characters impacting on each other in subtle ways, Fog of Doubt is a great book — so, yeah, that comparison makes a lot of sense. As I said to Jonathan, I’m disappointed in myself that I didn’t spot the Brandian aspects of this. Guess I was just too busy falling in love with them all 🙂

      I have The Rose in Darkness, and am hugely curious what it’s going to divulge when I get to it. Knowing me I’ll be unimpressed — see Fog of Doubt, Green for Danger, Tour de Force — but I’ll love the people. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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  3. Let me be the third to mention Brand, not this time for characters but for writing style. The quotes you’ve pulled out here are like fine wine, wow, it gets me fired up to see GAD with this level of writing. Having just started Death of Jezebel I’m being smashed with the same beautiful grasp of language that just allows you to sit back and enjoy the ride, while feeling the awkward tensions at every moment. I also read The Verdict of 12 recently, and it had a similar effect of ‘getting under my armor’ as you described. While also not really being a GAD work.

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  4. As I read this, I had the feeling I was being punked. Sometimes you like the strangest things. This seems to be the antithesis of F.W. Crofts, and I picture your steely mind collapsing into a puddle as you wipe tears from your eyes with a lacy handkerchief.

    Like EVERYONE but you, apparently, this brought You-Know-Who to mind: small cast of characters so lovable that you can’t bare to think of any of them going to jail. Come on, man!! It’s C.B. through and through.

    The thing that tempts me so much about this is your hint about the “heart-shattering motivation” behind the crime. I loves me a good, original motive, and if it weren’t for the fact that I probably can’t find this one anywhere, you might almost have me searching for a copy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, from now on small casts of wonderful characters from which you cannot bear to pick a killer will be known as Ronaldian. Since he came first, and all.

      This and They Can’t Hang Me are absolutely worth tracking down if you can. Just don’t anyone go snapping up other JR titles — let me get in there first to determine whether it’s worthy of your time 🙂

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  5. This sounds delightful, and is exactly the type of detection fiction that manages to make the upper pantheon of my tastes. It almost seems like an interesting parallel to Ellery Queen’s The Murderer is a Fox mixed with a bit of Christianna’s Brand’s emotional intrigue and familial mysteries (rereading Tour de Force by her at the moment!). There seems to be several cheap copies available around the web, so I’ll definitely be picking one up and trying out Ronald, along with They Can’t Hang Me if its manageable!

    Excited like Ben to see what you make of Seeing is Believing. I adored the buildup to the end – with it’s simplistic writing and alluring mystery. Sadly the ending is perhaps one of the greatest disappointments and cheats in Carr’s whole career, a shame really…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ll be interested to see what that Carr ending is like. Can it even be redeemed over time? You know the way some solutions don’t feel right in the moment but grow on you with their audacity etc?

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    • I’ve started SiB and — as a seasoned Carrite — I reckon I know what the cheat is going to be. And, honestly, he’s done far, far worse. But let’s wait and see, since if it all urns out to be solved by dreams then I’ll look a little presumptuous.

      The deeper I get into GAD, the more I appreciate this sort of slightly shifting base of novel: not quite one thing, not quite the other. I started off with a real fixation on misdirection and plot — I read Christie first, remember, during her strongest era — but, love those still though I do, my tastes are starting to shift a little more towarda Crofts’ rigour, or this sort of alternate take on the trappings of a GAD novel. The askance view often brings out something a little more delicate than straight detection would allow, and it’s wonderful learning about these pluracy of approaches to what sould be, after all, a fairly limited set of options.

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    • Well, so long as it’s “surprise” and not “disappoint” 😆

      Seven or eight years ago I would’ve put this down halfway through and probably sworn off James Ronald for life. But seven or eight years ago I was an idiot, as at the same time I would’ve found little of value in The Sea Mystery by Crofts or The Howling Beast by Vindry. Hell, I’m even eyeing up those Julian Symons reprints from the BL at the moment — what’s HapPeNinG tO mE?

      Let’s be honest, GAD is a broad church, and always hankering after the exact same thing would be entirely possible — good heavens, a lot of everything was written — but not everyone always set out to conform to the perceived limitations of the genre. Innovators did more than just provide six solutions to the same puzzle, they played with the structure and expectations internally, too (e.g., killing the nicest person in the cast, or making you really feel for the killer). I think I’d be limiting my appreciation of the genre — and, indeed, couldn’t really be said to be reading the genre at all properly were I to acknowledge the merits of a variety of approaches.

      Er, thanks for the therapy; how much do I owe you…?

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  6. #(^#%^#@!!!!!!!!! I ordered a paperback copy of this book in “near fine” condition. It arrived. It is in great condition. It is also abridged!!! @#$#%)#&(!!!!!!!!!

    Should I bother to read it in abridged form? I feel cheated. I can’t seem to find anything else. Would I have better luck in a London bookstore????

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    • I couldn’t tell you about the abridged version Brad, sorry — there seemed to be no fat on the full text, certainly, but abridgements seemed to be handled pretty well back then, right?

      As for London bookshops, some of them do a trade solely in copies of this book. Indeed, the fifteen secondhand bookshops on my road are stocked to the rafters with it, Last night they had their annual Murder in the Family Bonfire, where the community gathers round an effigy of Ronald made from copies of this book, atop a pile of the best 50,000 copies, and everyone chants “burn! burn! burn!” while toasting marshmallows (and throwing on copies of Hake Talbot’s manuscript for The Case of the Half Witness if the flames drop below the mandatory 84 feet in height and/or 487,000 celsius in temperature). This morning, with the smell of ashes still rich in the air, we’ll collect up the embers and post them to random people called James or Ronald around the world, and then everything will quiet down again until next year.

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