It’s lovely to be living in a golden age for reissued golden age crime fiction, but sometimes it’s tricky to decide which books to choose from so many lovely possibilities.
I found many reasons to pick up ‘Knock, Murderer, Knock!’ by Harriet Rutland, and it proved to be an excellent choice. It was a very well told story, and so many things were done so very well that I would have quite happily read on – and looked for the author’s other books – even if there hadn’t been a mystery to be solved.
The writing is witty and literate; the characters and the settings are acutely observed; the plot is very well managed; and the author balances an understanding of convention with a distinctive style of her own to make this country house murder mystery – set in a run-down spa resort – one of a kind.
The opening sentence is extraordinary:
“Mrs Napier walked slowly to the middle of the terrace, noted the oncoming car, looked around to make sure that she was fully observed, crossed her legs deliberately, and fell heavily on to the red gravel drive.”
The car drove around Mrs Napier and nobody went to her aid. She had a habit of staging accidents, and so her fellow residents just laughed and carried on with whatever they were doing. Eventually Nurse Hawkins came to the rescue, and was rewarded with a volley of abuse and allegations of assault.
Mrs Napier is just one of a wonderful gallery of characters.
There are two retired career soldiers, one a crossword addict and the other a fanatical knitter; there’s a haughty aristocratic who lives in fear of her humble origins being uncovered; there’s a lady author of detective novels with a young son in tow; there’s another lady who is painfully prim and proper.
There’s a middle-aged couple with two teenage daughters and a handsome young chauffeur in tow; there’s an imperious elderly lady who is waited on by her devoted maid; there’s a handsome young baronet.
And there is Miss Blake. She was young and pretty; she was friendly and she had a wonderfully sunny nature. Her wardrobe was modern and daring, her conversation was frank and open, and her sense of humour was risqué. It was no wonder that the men crowded round her and the women were infuriated by her.
I liked her, and I loved that she was reading one of my favourite books:
“The last book I saw you with was the one with the rude title,” said Mrs. Marston. “In All My Nakedness, I think it was called.”
“Without My Cloak,” corrected Miss Blake. “You wouldn’t call me naked just because I took off my coat, would you?”
“Yes, I should,” came a booming whisper from Mrs. Napier, who had apparently been asleep through the rest of the conversation. “Some of the frocks she wears under that thing she calls a house-coat are no bigger than vests.”
(There are lots of lovely literary references like that scattered through this book.)
Watching all of these characters, following their relationships and their interactions was fascinating. They were all real, they were all believable, and through them the author spoke clearly of the prejudices, the narrow-mindedness, and the insecurities that made them what they were.
It was the morning after the weekly amateur talent night, when Miss Blake had been the star of the show as she stood in as piano accompanist for all the singers, that she was found dead. She was in the lounge, she was dressed in her evening gown and a fine steel knitting needle sticking out of the base of her neck.
Inspector Palk arrived to investigate. He was a plain, ordinary and unremarkable detective, and that disappointed me a little at first, but I came to realise that he was the right kind of detective for this particular story.
He investigated methodically and he was quick to make an arrest.
But then there was a second murder. And a third.
I don’t want to say any more about specifics than that.
I’ll just say that Harriet Rutland managed her plot and her large cast of characters very well. There were lots of lovely details, there were lots of different aspects to the story, and my thoughts were pulled in all kinds of directions.
I really wasn’t sure who the murderer was until the grand denouement.
I’m sure that the author played fair, I’m sure the clues were there, but I was caught in the moment from start to finish.
I loved the mixture of murder mystery, black comedy, and human drama; had Agatha Christie, Muriel Spark and G B Stern sat down to write a book together, it might have turned out something like this.
I’m sorry that Harriet Rutland only wrote two more books; but I’m delighted that Dean Street Press has them back in print, and I’m looking forward to reading them.