I read the first half of Blue Murder (1942), the third and final novel by Harriet Rutland, in a single gasp. It’s a fascinating opening, deliberately short on setting and description so as to emphasise the characters you’re going to be spending the book with, and it drew me like a moth to a flame, eager for the destruction to come. From the outset, when headteacher Mr. Hardstaffe learns that his affairs are being gossiped about by the village schoolchildren and calls them “little bastards!” for showing such disrespect, we’re clearly not in the genteel arm of GAD, and it’s only a matter of how savagely Rutland develops from here. And, as things progress, we seem to ring more than a few changes.
The Hardstaffes really are quite easy to dislike — whether we see them in action (hypochondriac Mrs. Hardstaffe’s insulation for the real world is gorgeously shown in her wittering about sugar rations early on), or learn about their less pleasant characteristics through others (Leda’s treatment of the housemaid Frieda, say). But, in fact, Rutland is also keen for everyone to have more than just one side to them: Superintendent Cheam is as charming at times as he is brusque at others (“It’s evidence I want, not a character study,” he snaps when told that while not actually seen committing an act, it would be “in character” for the person suspected) and the moral laxity of otherwise likeable characters on display would keep Mary Whitehouse busy for a month.
And so of course someone is going to get murdered, and of course we’re going to play around with the notion of detective fiction by having fading novelist Arthur Smith trying to cash in on the current popularity of murder mysteries by writing one and making the Hardstaffes characters in his book. In one amusing swipe at the peculiarities of amateur detectives we’re told that Arthur’s sleuth Noel Delare “made it a point of honour never to enter any room by means of the door”, and when the Oxford-educated Chief Inspector Driver from Scotland Yard appears on the scene we’re informed that he “had learned to curb the habit of flinging into the air a sudden quotation whose very aptness had only served to irritate his critics”. See? It’s that sort of GAD novel.
Rutland’s eye extends to the trenchant beyond merely the game-playing of GAD, however, to delightful effect:
This was war time, and you could not deal effectively with incendiary bombs, or stand by with a First Aid Party, in a gown which swirled around your ankles. There was, in fact little scope at all for femininity in Total War, which for the time being, and possibly for all time, had destroyed the slogan that Woman’s Place is in the Home.
See also Dr. Macalistair being next up to “face the bowling” in giving evidence at an inquest, or Superintendent Cheam trying to “frame his questions within the three-hundred-word vocabulary of a two-year-old child” when questioning Frieda whose first language is not English. And then, just as you expect you have a hold on things, Rutland darkens the palette subtly: Leda Hardstaffe’s refusal to allow German to be spoken in the house because it’s “unpatriotic”, Hardstaffe gazing at the youthful object of his affections “through the watering, bloodshot eyes of an old man”, or the melancholy reflections of the coroner at the inquest on the first victim. For all the wit on display (and, sure, not all of it lands — the dogs urinating on everything is…odd) there’s a fair amount of vinegar beneath the honey.
Naturally the Second World War looms both large and small throughout: Arnold Smith is fleeing the bombing of London, but Nether Naughton is so far removed from any action that the various drills everyone must attend take on a farcical aspect. Equally, the sheer exhaustion of living under restrictions is beginning to show — Hitler dismissed as a “little house-painter” in whom no-one has any real interest any more — and contrasts with Frieda’s experience of genuine horror and hardship as a German Jew, fleeing to a place of safety where she is belittled and abused by the people supposedly helping her. The casual anti-Semitism so jarringly on display in books of this era is something Rutland confronts quite fearlessly, from both sides, and while I’m not sure it’s entirely successful you have to acknowledge the attempt to genuinely raised some empathy for what should not be a sympathetic character.
But all this societal change on the page is also evident in the narrative developments that close out the book, and for me it falls frustratingly close to brilliant but for the fact that it sets up several question — they key, for one — that it never answers. The ending is possibly something quite new at the time, and the various pointers along the way towards that solution are undeniable…but then, equally, Rutland wishes that cake to also remain as evinced in a late chapter where a character’s name is withheld for the exact reason that it doesn’t matter who it is. However, as something that wishes to push detection more in the direction of crime fiction, this has much to recommend it to fans of both schools. It sprinkles delightful historical nuggets throughout — far from least of which is the generational war that sees younger people having options and exhibiting behaviour their elders find distasteful (a woman combing her hair in public? Egads!) as the expected roles and strata of society crumble even while the buildings remain standing — that shows very strongly the benefic results of that somewhat crabwise for of progress.
Sharp, unsparing, delightful, and clearly showing the genre’s ability to address real world issues while also managing its own subtle development. A shame my copy seems to be missing twenty chapters (immediately following Chapter XXXIX comes Chapter LX…) but, that aside, this was a delight. Shame Rutland didn’t write as many novels as Christopher Bush, eh?
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: This may not be a novel filled with clues and is much more dependent on psychology and relationships, but I think this is Rutland’s strongest novel having a strong Frances Iles’ flavour. The writing style, the dialogue, the tone and dark sharp humour, along with the characters mesh together cohesively to provide an ending which cracks a punch.
Nick @ The Grandest Game in the World: Rutland focuses on the characters and on her blackly comic dissection of the class system and British insularity. Despite a couple of investigating policemen, there is very little clueing or deduction. The murderer will come as no surprise; but there’s an easy naturalness and inevitability to the revelation.