#617: The Black Honeymoon (1944) by Constance and Gwenyth Little [a.p.a by Conyth Little]

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Sisters Constance and Gwenyth Little occupy an unusual place in the firmament of GAD.  Together they wrote 21 novels and, thanks to the Rue Morgue Press reissuing them in the early 2000s, there’s sufficient awareness around them for the term “forgotten” to be thoroughly inappropriate…but you’d have to be a genre nerd to name more than a handful of their books.  Their lack of a series character and the fact that they wrote no short stories (and a single novella, presumably harder to anthologise) doubtless play a part, but I think more telling is the fact that they’re remarkably difficult to pigeonhole.  You’re never quite sure what you’re getting, and that cuts both ways.

Unpredictability can be fun.  In any age of well-established series protagonists you know that a certain amount of peril simply doesn’t exist any more, and you can usually spot an innocent party by their relationship with the protagonist.  We know that Hercule Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon will come to no harm, that no-one is going to kidnap and ransom Inspector Joseph French’s wife Emily, and that Lord Peter Wimsey’s batman-cum-manservant Mervyn Bunter is guaranteed a long and prosperous retirement.  The central thesis of crime fiction was formed in assuming that crimes had to strike close to home, and that GAD was moribund for always keeping it at arm’s length; argue that one over amongst yourselves, but the point remains that the rails of form have an element of predestiny about them.

The Little sisters circumvent that to a certain extent, and it gives them some freedom to play: is it significant here, for instance, that Miriel Mason marries Ian Ross, the nephew of the wealthy man she is employed to nurse, after a mere five-day courtship?  And, if so, who is the mendacious one?  Della Street, could she bring herself to look at another man besides Perry Mason, would absolutely be the innocent here, but the unknown quantity of both works in the Littles’ favour — especially since it seems Miriel’s father had already arranged with the ailing Richard Lang “without my knowledge or consent” that Miriel should marry him as soon as he was well.  And then he dies.  And it seems that Miriel may have killed him.

Added to the difficulty is that Ian is a serviceman on furlough, and their honeymoon must take place while Miriel is still on call to nurse and while sharing a house with a branch of Ian’s extended family rendered temporarily homeless (old Aunt Violet retires to her room in disgust and refuses to have anything to do with the interlopers).  Medicos litter the place — nurse Sara and nurse-in-training Leslie, respectively the wife and daughter of Dr. John, who in turn is the nephew of the elderly Dr. Benson, Richard’s brother — and with John pressing Miriel and Leslie into service to help with various distinguished patients (Sara cries off with a sore throat), and Miriel and Ian trying to figure each other out…well, there’s already more than enough going on for most novels.  That Miriel ends up suspected of murder and so ropes in private investigator and part-time lush Montgomery Kelly to investigate the matter is really the tipping point at which it all becomes a bit too overloaded and loses its charming lightness of touch.

The first half is fun, which is perhaps not entirely unexpected when the copyright page asserts that “Any resemblance to persons living or dead would be downright ridiculous”.  There’s a levity and an archness that reminds me of the best writing done by Kelley Roos, with snaps of Craig Rice’s John J. Malone wiseacre dialogue thrown in for good measure:

Benjamin was awake when I got back, and my experienced eye told me that he was about ripe to tell me the story of his life.  As a matter of fact, he did start on it, but much to my relief he fell asleep again while he was still in his early childhood.

For a while the unpredictability works in the narrative’s favour — things bump and moan in the night, a pile of sand is discussed at such regular intervals that you wonder how people coped without television, and Miriel’s father offers a window on the strictures of contemporary living in the secretive doing of her laundry.  A second death is heartbreakingly written, and when Kelly insists that he should be allowed to sit in Miriel’s room and smoke while she rests because “she can’t smoke while she’s sleeping.  She must miss it” there’s no jarring clash of contrasting tones.  But gradually tedium settles in as more and more little events are added and added and added piecemeal, thankfully not drawn out by any stupid actions on Miriel’s part (she’s pretty savvy for your usual GAD suspect), but ye gods couldn’t the whole thing do with an injection of pace (evinced by Kelly finding a family bible in which thankfully an entire history of the gang is laid out in perfect biographical detail).

And then it becomes, of all things, woefully predictable.  With time to think about it, one key aspect repeated and repeated and repeated only makes sense if…well.  You’ll never figure it out from the information provided — we’re treated to a long, perfect monologue to explain the whos and whats and wherefores and hows — but you can take a sweeping guess and be pretty spot on.  For all you’re told, there’s really very little actual clewing, and for something that delights so much in veering all over the place in both tone and focus it’s really rather familiar by the end.  With a good edit — this Rue Morgue edition is easily the longest of the seven or eight Littles I’ve read — the confidence of the tone here would earn it another star, but for hanging around too long and not sticking the promised landing the first half sets up, I have to drag it down a bit.  Enjoyable enough, but nothing terribly memorable or notable come the end.

And, well, that’s sort of the Littles in a nutshell, innit?

~

See also

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: The mystery in this tale works from small beginnings, but the Littles expand it out in different and intriguing ways. The household is full of secrets, so much so, that the majority of them are doled out in the manner of being told rather than shown. I would categorise this story as a comic thriller. It delivers a great deal of fun, but the solution is not one you’re going to figure out in a month of Sundays!

21 thoughts on “#617: The Black Honeymoon (1944) by Constance and Gwenyth Little [a.p.a by Conyth Little]

  1. I’ve read 9 books by the Littles and I’ve come to enjoy the variation they produce with similar patterns and characters. Working women from various sectors feature, as well as the ones with rich parents. There’s first time love but also female leads who are divorced. Trains, family homes, winter holidays, summer holidays, asylums – you get it all!
    However looking at my ratings for the 9 I’ve read, despite rating this book higher than you, it is still one of three weakness that I have read (the other two being The Black Rustle and The Black Headed Pins). My three favourites so far are The Black Shroud, The Black Iris and The Black Coat.

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    • I remember particularly enjoying The Black Eye and The Black Coat — but they were both pre-blog and I’m in no rush to reread them given how precarious my TBR is.

      That variation is lovely, as is the unpredictability of some of their reveals based on assumptions made, but I feel like they often had to put so much work into setting up new people every time that they ran out of puff in the final third a fair amount. Having read a third of their output I don’t quite have the authority to declare if this is a frequent flaw, but it certainly feels like one.

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      • Some of their endings can be a bit rushed. I wonder if they had some kind of word/page restriction? The Black Express is the worst example of a rushed, whilst others I would say avoid this issue more ably. I’ve yet to read The Black Eye, so it’s good to know it gets a JJ thumbs up, (though I am hoping that is not because it is one story in the Little input which resembles a Croft or Penny novel lol)

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        • Ha, can you imagine a Crofts pastiche by the Little? A part-time dresser in a department store must run to ground the identity of the naked corpse found in a cubicle…all while deflecting the amorous intentions of her boss and trying to work out what’s going on in the spooky storeroom after dark…while worrying about promotion and trying to track down the taxi that delivered him to the bus which dropped him at the train station where he headed for the coast and caught a helicopter back to the store.

          Skind like something by Vernon Loder… 😂

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        • Personally speaking,about The Black Eye,I think it is very cumbersome,more than Crofts,especially the first ten chapters , i almost fall asleep …I believe Honeymoon or Black Dream is the best?

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          • I read The Black Eye first or possibly second, and remember really enjoying it — but, hey, who knows? Maybe my memory is at fault. Certainly the memory of enjoyment helped me persevere through a couple of their more drudge-y titles, but equally maybe my critical faculties weren’t at their sharpest back then (see Thursday’s forthcoming review for an example of that…).

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  2. “We know that Hercule Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon will come to no harm, that no-one is going to kidnap and ransom Inspector Joseph French’s wife Emily, and that Lord Peter Wimsey’s batman-cum-manservant Mervyn Bunter is guaranteed a long and prosperous retirement. The central thesis of crime fiction was formed in assuming that crimes had to strike close to home, and that GAD was moribund for always keeping it at arm’s length; argue that one over amongst yourselves, but the point remains that the rails of form have an element of predestiny about them.”

    Loved this point and has left me with much to think about. I wonder if that’s why so many people go crazy for book like Green For Danger because the violence it is meant to be close to home?

    Your comparison with Kelly Roos makes sense here, and it’s funny that I often come across the Little’s and Roos together in second and bookshops, even with similar looking covers. Add to that Disney and Curtiss and feels like a family of similar 2 thirds good stuff (with no pace!), maybe it was all the same person?!

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    • I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Littles or Roos in a secondhand bookshop — is this because you find them first and buy them up?

      Green for Dnager hits hard because Brand has that alchemy of really, really making you feel her characters as people. Other authors manage it with a description here and there, or with one or two key members of the ensemble, but Brand like no-one else makes every single one of her characters come to life. Which is why the shortfall in her plotting — or, in the case of The Rose in Darkness, the sheer bloody annoying nature of these smug pillocks — is so very frustrating.

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      • I’ve mostly got them online, though I have been occasionally lucky getting some from Barter Books and Oxfam Online have also had some. But yes I am now convinced that Dan is secretly buying up all the second hand copies in the UK, as part of some sinister hoarding scheme!

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  3. I read all of the Little’s “Black” books when they were first reissued by Rue Morgue and the only way to sum them up is quirky. I would have to put The Black Coat, The Black Eye and The Black Shrouds at the top for me. But since I read them around the turn of the century my tastes may have changed😁.

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    • I remember reading the first few and being very, very taken with them. My ardour has cooled a (ahem) little, it must be said, but for the curious mind willing to see what the breadth of GAD has to offer there’s plenty of charm to be found in these books. I’m not sure I’ll read another one any time soon, there’s too much else clamouring for my attention, but I’m delighted and very grateful that Tom and Enid Schantz went to the efforts they did the reissue them — and to write such excellent introductions, too.

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  4. There’s a levity and an archness that reminds me of the best writing done by Kelley Roos, with snaps of Craig Rice’s John J. Malone wiseacre dialogue thrown in for good measure…

    The Littles were two of Tom and Enid Schantz’s favorite mystery writers, who loved zany and lighthearted, comedic mysteries, which is why they also reprinted Delano Ames, Pamela Branch, Torrey Chanslor, Frances Crane, Norbert Davis, Craig Rice and Kelley Roos. For example, you’ll find a lot of the Littles and Rice in Branch’s The Wooden Overcoat and the two Chanslor novels.

    What annoyed me the most about the Clyde Clason covers is that RMP replicated the original cover for their reprint of Poison Jasmine and used their own illustration for Dragon’s Cave, but slapped a stock picture on Blind Drifts. And they did the same with Glyn Carr! As you said, you can’t have everything.

    A question for everyone here: what’s your favorite original RMP cover art? My pick is Roos’ The Frightened Stiff with Patricia Moyes’ Dead Men Don’t Ski coming up as a close second. I’ve not read Dead Men Don’t Ski, but love the RMP illustration of a grim-looking reaper on a use-or-lose leave and is not enjoying his time off.

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    • As a cover, I’d probably opt for The Wrong Murder by Craig Rice or If The Shroud Fits by Kelley Roos, or even The puzzle of the Pepper Tree by Stuart Palmer. But the photograph on the cover of A Religious Body by Catherine Aird is a wonderful image, even if the cover itself is a little bland.

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