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.
Over at the excellent and superbly-titled Exploring the History of Women in Mystery blog, wrangler “Unpredictable Notes” recently put up this brief summary of the EIRF school as outlined in Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor’s A Catalogue of Crime (1971). EIRF is a step on from HIBK (Had I But Known) and stands for Everything is Rather Frightening:
In fact, since the modern psychological novel has devoted itself to exploring the abnormal and oddly alarming, no great originality was needed to raise the emotional pitch of the murder another notch and made HIBK into EIRF – Everything is Rather Frightening.
This is a new one on me but, by the same serendipity that seems to manifest itself throughout my blogging, I was reading The Black Rustle — one of the middle period novels from the Little sisters — when I encountered this lexicon, and it struck me how perfectly all the Littles’ books fall into this categorisation.
So, from one Australian author last week – the entertainingly bonkers world of Max Afford’s Owl of Darkness – to two this week – the entertainingly bonkers world of the Little Sisters. This is my first foray into the Monthly Challenge over at Past Offences, with the year for December being 1941 and so falling perfectly into my TBR pile, and it’s been a joy to reacquaint myself with these literary ladies after frankly too long away. Shades of my reviews from earlier this year – Pamela Branch’s The Wooden Overcoat and Torrey Chanslor’s Our First Murder – resurface here, with delightful overtones of everyone’s favourite crime-solving couple found in the echoes of Kelley Roos’ The Frightened Stiff, too, as a murder in a boarding house gives way to suspicion, fear, mistrust, confusion, doubt, terror and…laughter. Because as well as being a well-plotted and beautifully light mystery, this is also very, very witty indeed.
There are no tentpole comic set-pieces like in The Wooden Overcoat – seriously, the ‘picnic’ chapter in that book still makes me smile – and it’s not that the Littles are especially arch or sharp-tongued in their prose, but there is a gentle kind of amusement behind everything that really works. It helps typify characters such as Neville Ward who is “about as exciting as a boiled egg” and in failing to make himself heard during a drunken conversation involving a great many other people is described as having his soprano voice “cut off at birth”. It helps perfectly capture fellow resident Camille “an ex-actress in her sixties who…made no bones about admitting that she was nearly forty”. And, crucially, it helps soften the edges on, and emphasises the charm of, runaway heiress and narrator Diana Prescott who, in less graceful hands, would probably have irritated the living hell out of me. Continue reading →
I will probably put this very poorly, so bear with me.
I am an Agatha Christie fan. I am also, you may have noticed, a fan of John Dickson Carr, and of Edmund Crispin, Leo Bruce, Rupert Penny, Kelley Roos, and Constance & Gwenyth Little. What these detective fiction writers have in common is two-fold: firstly they are all dead, so their output is now a fixed and known quantity, and secondly it is my express intention to read everything they ever published in the crime fiction sphere. In some cases this may not be achievable – though with the recent increase in GA reprints it’s to be hoped that these will be picked up before too long – but I intend to give it my best shot nonetheless.