Continuing my examination of three classic but forgotten mysteries recommended to me by Curtis Evans at The Passing Tramp, I have saved the best for last! And in doing so, I have both good, incredible, wonderful news to share, as well as bad, horrible, terrible news.
The good news is that, based on reading only the first of her novels, I would say that Harriet Rutland is a marvelous mystery writer, every bit as clever and fun as Christianna Brand or Marjorie Allingham, more clever than Ngaio Marsh or Dorothy Sayers, and capable of both incredible humor and great poignancy.
The bad news? She only wrote three books.
What is a boy to do??? I have purchased the other two, but do I space them out over a number of years, or do I gobble them down now and grieve afterward? I will forever wonder how someone as good as Rutland could stop after her third effort, but, as Curtis’ excellent introduction to the book will explain, there isn’t a lot known about the author. So let’s focus on the good stuff: namely, this book, which I am entering into Bev Hankins’ Golden Age Vintage Mystery Cover Scavenger Hunt with a CAT! (http://myreadersblock.blogspot.com/2015/11/vintage-mystery-cover-scavenger-hunt.html)
Where Ten Star Clues and Who Killed Charmian Karslake begin traditionally with depictions of, respectively, a British tea and a British breakfast, Knock, Murderer, Knock begins thusly:
“Mrs. Napier walked slowly to the middle of the terrace, noted the oncoming car, looked round to make sure that she was fully observed, crossed her legs deliberately, and fell heavily on to the red gravel drive.
“’Just look at that old hag!’ exclaimed Admiral Urwin, chuckling.
“’A bloomin’ acrobat, that’s what she is,’ muttered Matthews, the chauffeur, who had just managed to bring the car to a standstill in front of her.”
It turns out that Mrs. Napier likes to fall down a lot – and do some other odd things – to garner attention as one of the oldest residents at the Presteignton Hydro, a spa and hotel set on a cliff in Devonshire Bay. The place is crammed with eccentrics, most of them women, who receive treatments from the handsome owner, Dr. Williams, and spend the rest of their time engaged in vicious gossip about each other.
There are over twenty characters to keep track of at the Hydro, and an early review I read somewhere criticized the enormous size of the cast. But honestly, these characters are gold, and aside from mining an enormous amount of humor from their antics, Rutland manages to delineate one from the other and juggle their places in the mystery so well that I could tell them all apart just fine, thank you.
As a plotter, Rutland does a splendid job of surprising me again and again – in her choice of victims and in the secrets her characters have kept hidden – so I really don’t want to give much of the story away. Suffice it to say that a murderer strikes at Presteignton Hydro, and it is up to Inspector Pawk and Sergeant Jago to find the killer. And when the police don’t seem capable of success, a new guest named Mr. Winkley shows up, whose interest in the case may be that of an amateur sleuth, or it may be something else.
Rutland’s prose is sparkling and eschews all the stilted qualities I found throughout Hayne’s novel and in parts of Punshon’s book. The dialogue is so good that, for once, I did not find myself tiring of the inclusion of multiple interviews of the suspects; each one was a comic gem. The interviews are made even more fun as Rutland shares Inspector Pawk’s interior opinions of these people: his attraction toward the Doctor’s secretary, or his antipathy toward Mrs. Dawson, the mystery novelist, just because she is a lady writer who has no qualms about pointing out the mistakes Pawk has made on the case. At first, it seems that Mrs. Dawson will be a figure of fun, but as the case progresses, she becomes more and more important to the story. This happens with a number of characters who pass back and forth from minor to major status. Nobody can be taken for granted during this investigation.
One of my favorite characters is Colonel Simcox, who falls under suspicion because the murder weapon is a knitting needle, and he happens to be the only man on the premises who knits. In lesser hands, the Colonel might have come off as a complete caricature of the pukka sahib military man who pervades classic mysteries. However, this guy is too funny to be dismissed as a cliché. He has fallen for a much younger woman and pursues her by constantly asking her to fix his dropped stitches. When he is questioned by Palk after the murder, he bristles at the idea that he would stoop so low as to use a needle as a weapon:
“Don’t be a fool, Inspector. You surely don’t think that a soldier who has served under three sovereigns in all parts of the British Empire would murder a woman with a knitting-needle, do you? Damned rot, sir, damned rot! I’ve a perfectly good Service revolver upstairs in my drawer, as I’ve no doubt you already know. I should have shot her, my good man, I should have shot her!”
Despite the prevalence of effective humor throughout the book, Rutland is not averse to depicting the horror and sadness of murder, particularly in her choice of victims, or the loneliness of those of middle age and above who find themselves living alone. The spa residents alternately like and loathe each other, partly out of a sense of frustration at their own lives, and out of a need for something to do. They band together when necessary, and they attack each other without much provocation. They are odd and eccentric and yet seemed incredibly realistic to me, and I loved each and every one of them.
Rutland’s novel doesn’t contain the depth of surprise that a Christie novel might, but she reminded me of Dame Agatha in many ways, particularly in her fine depiction of spinsters and servants, and in the nice way she lay scene after scene before us, telling us a little more each time about her characters even as she laid a new twist in the story before us. I can only imagine how famous Harriet Rutland might have become if only she had dedicated more of her life to her writing. Dare I say it, I think she would have usurped other ladies as one of the Queens of Crime. (There, I said it!) As it is, I have only Bleeding Hooks and Blue Murder to look forward to. I shall probably read them very quickly, but I will savor them, and I will let you know what I thought when I’m done.