The cover was striking, but it gave me no clue to the extraordinary mixture that I would find inside this little book from the 1930s. It began as a social satire, it showed signs of becoming a dystopian novel, it became a police procedural for quite some time, and as the end drew near it turned into a horror story. All of the elements were familiar, but not all in the same book. The combination isn’t wholly successful, but the story is irresistible.
The duchess is Mary Dove, widow of the third Duke of Dove and Oldham, and she is as good as she is beautiful. She lived quietly, spending her days doing good works, and her evenings at home with her companion, a poor relation taken under her wing. This was explained so carefully, with such loving detail, that I couldn’t help but be charmed by Mary Dove.
I found that her home was an oasis of calm in a deeply troubled London. In 1938 – a few years after this little book was published – the city was wracked by unemployment, social change, political demonstrations; and Winston Churchill, had been forced into a coalition with Oswald Moseley.
It was against this background that the ‘Jane the Ripper’ murders began: a killer believed to be female, young, and maybe foreign, was killing men in ways that became increasingly bizarre. Mary Dove became the prime suspect; it seemed ridiculous, it seemed impossible, but the evidence was compelling.
The police were incredulous; they thought there might be a communist plot to discredit the aristocracy, the wondered if the duchess might have been drugged or hypnotised, they wondered if something was amiss in their household. But they didn’t arrest her; instead they put arrangement in place for the duchess, who was deeply distressed by everything that was happening around her, to be sent to a nursing home where she would be carefully and discreetly guarded.
There was rioting in the streets when the news broke that the prime suspect had not been arrested.
Meanwhile, the police followed a trail of evidence to an extraordinary conclusion.
Hell! Said the Duchess is a very readable book. I’ve never read anything like it before, and I think it’s reasonably safe to say that I never will again. The contrast of the light social satire and the darker elements is oddly effective, and there are some lovely details along the way
But some elements work better than others, and I couldn’t help thinking of certain contemporaries of Michael Arlen’s who could have dealt with each aspect of the story a little better. Though I doubt that any of them could have handled them all, or thought of putting them all together to such fine effect.
I can’t say that this is a great book, but I can definitely say that it was a wonderful entertainment and that I’m very pleased that it’s back in print.