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?
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!