Crime Fiction Alphabet: M is for Mary

The title attracted me first. One unfamiliar and intriguing title on a shelf with other, better known, green Penguins.

“Death and the Pleasant Voices”

Now what did that mean?

I picked the book up and turned to the back cover. The words below the author’s photograph were wonderful.

β€œIt is, I think, the writer of fiction who is of interest to the public, not the person of whom the writer is a part. Therefore I do not propose to give details of where I was born, where educated, and so forth. In my character as Author, I was born some years later than Myself, in that part of the world which lies between classical Greece and Elizabethan England.”

A lovely place to be born, an interesting perspective, and a fine opportunity to enter a story without any preconceptions.

I had to find out more. An interesting synopsis spoke of a young man caught up in strange events at a country house and the opening paragraph made me absolutely certain that I had uncovered a gem.

“I have never seen such lightning or such rain in all my life. As I drove, the rain swept towards me in great grey sheets so that the macadamed road was awash, and the lightning danced in quivering perpendicular lines just ahead of me. I cowered behind my low windscreen as if to avoid a blow; and over the sound of the engine I could hear crash after crash of almost continuous thunder. The sky behind, before, above, closed down over me; it was far darker than the surface of the road. Unable to think, and scarcely able to see, I steered along, doggedly and slowly, wondering what it would feel like when the inevitable happened and the car was struck; is there, or is there not, a moment of awareness before death and oblivion, even when the manner of death is so complacently said to be instantaneous? I wonder then , and I wonder now …”

The young man abroad was Jake Seabourne, medical student and only son of a country doctor; clearly a young man destined to follow in his father’s footsteps.

He took a wrong turning and it lead him to a large country house, and the very welcome prospect of shelter from the storm. A manservant admitted him and lead him into a room full of people. Conversation stopped. All eyes turned towards Jake. Silence. And then an effusive greeting from a young woman, and others following her lead.

But they called him Hugo. Who was Hugo?

Fortunately one person present recognised Jake. Sir Frederick Lawton, an eminent surgeon, sees what has happened, sets thing to rights, and smooths Jake’s path.

He draws Jake to one side to explain. The owner of the house has died, and he has not left his house to his twin son and daughter. He has named his illegitimate son as his heir. A young man who he provided for but kept at arm’s length and never met. Hugo.

He had asked Sir Frederick, and old friend, to contrive to be present when Hugo arrived, to smooth his path. But Sir Frederick has urgent business calling him away, and he asks Jake to take his place. Jake, curious, and eager to associate himself with the great man, agrees.

It’s a wonderful scenario, and Mary Fitt manages it beautifully. 

She paints wonderful pictures of the house, and of its occupants.

Ursula and Jim, daughter and son of the house; their cousin, Evelyn, who had come to nurse their dying father; and elderly  Aunt and Uncle; and Hilary Parmoor, Ursula’s suitor. All complex characters, that would be slowly revealed as the plot advanced.

It was a very clever plot, psychologically true and built upon that fine collection of characters.

Hugo arrived and he was not at all what had been expected, did not at all what had been expected.

And then a very, very well judged twist and a murder.

Jake finds himself in an invidious position, as both confidante and resented outsider.

Another, very clever, twist makes him a suspect, caught in a very tangled web.

Everything, a fine mystery, a wonderful study of English society, and a picture of a way of life recently past and yet long gone, comes out of the characters. No details of the investigation, no set-pieces, just utterly believable and fascinating characters living through, dealing with, a situation.

The resolution works beautifully. It came naturally out of the story and, though I had worked out who the perpetrator had to be, I was still fascinated to learn just what had happened, and just what would happen next.

And a final little twist, a sting in the tail, revealed the meaning of that title.

A fitting end.

Death and the Pleasant Voices is a fine example of the classic country house mystery, and now when I scan the shelves of green Penguins I shall definitely be hoping to find more of Mary Fitt’s work.

*****

The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

“Each week, beginning Monday 10 January 2011, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”

So next week, N is for … ?

11 responses

    • There are some gems to be found on shelves of green Penguins. I always go for the women authors with unfamiliar names and I’m rarely disappointed.

  1. just wanted to say that I’m really enjoying these alphabetical delights. Most of the time, like today, you’re introducing me to books and mystery writers I’ve never heard of. My TBR list does not thank you, but I do!

  2. I love these wonderful old green Penguins. They always make me think of Margery Allingham, who is my favourite golden age crime writer. Fitt is a totally new name to me, but one I shall keep an eye open for in the secondhand shops. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: April 9, 2011 | Semicolon

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