The Ministry of Labour “directed” workpeople; her own daughters “registered” and performed strange tasks in strange uniforms. They “fire-watched”, drove ambulances, ran rest centres – they were not their mistresses any longer. A new range of expressions like “points”, “basic”, “under the counter”, “off the ration” developed.
Elspeth Carndale is in a dillema. Her husband Maurice has been offered a job in Hollywood for which he has to leave England. Elspeth has no intention of being left behind. The problem is her mother, Marie Roverie, needs a caretaker, as her secretary and housekeeper, Mardy has had a surgical operation and is still recuperating in the hospital. Elspeth has no intention of leaving her mother only at the hands of her younger sister, Mariamne and her husband, Paul Lisson. Mariamne had driven ambulances on the streets of London right through the bombings and the sirens since her mother refused to leave London and go to the countryside. This has shot her nerves to pieces. Elspeth feels she would not be able to cope up in case of an emergency.
Dwelling on these matters, Elspeth chances upon a girl, Susan Ferriby, in a cafe and seeing in her a competent young woman pours out her troubles to her and though it is highly irregular offers her the job of looking after her mother. Susan, who has recently been demobbed from the A.T.S., and is in search of a job, promises to think it over. When she discusses it with her friend Patricia who too has been recently freed of her war-time job, the latter is all for giving it a go, seeing in it a kind of adventure. The two girls decide to go together and convey it to Elspeth who, in turn, is delighted to have Pat too as then Susan would have company.
Marie Roverie turns out to be a relic of another age, one who is still living in the era of High Imperialism. She is graceful and gracious but also arrogant and tyrannical, pitting her daughters and sons-in-law against each other and changing her will at whim. The girls settle in and the next day Elspeth leaves to catch the plane to the US. Mariamne and Paul leave for a party and as the girls are chatting in their room, the bell rings summoning Susan to Mrs. Roverie’s room. She makes her way in the darkness (there has been a power-cut), stumbles over a chair, and then finds Mrs. Roverie dead. Rushing out to call a policeman (the phone is dead too) she is lucky enough to run into Chief Inspector Macdonald…
More than the mystery what I liked about the book was how it captured the changing socio-economic realities of Britain and the contribution of women to the war-effort. Through Marie Roverie, we have a link back to Victorian England. Though she has seen two world-wars, seen her sons die on the war-fronts and daughters being busy with working during the war, Marie Roverie continues to behave regally and imperiously. When her maid informs her that they have won the war, her reply is:
“Of course we’ve won. We always do.” (18)
Her daughters, of course, do not live in such a state. They have seen their brothers die, their husbands lose their fortune in the crash of 1930s, and have themselves participated in the war:
The war-time years were not easy ones for Elspeth Carndale and Mariamne Lisson. Their husbands were in the Forces: Maurice Carndale in the Navy, Paul Lisson doing administrative work in the Air Force. Neither Elspeth nor Mariamne had any young children and they came under “direction” as all other women did. They were both competent at whatever jobs they undertook, but life began to have a nightmarish quality. Everything was difficult – food, service, repairs, clothes; and Mrs. Roverie was most difficult. … The air-raids terrified Mariamne, and she suffered the more because she would not admit her fear. She had chosen Ambulance Work because she was a very good driver, but she had never envisaged what the job would be during the blitz. Obstinately she stuck to it…
Meanwhile, Elspeth too worked in varying capacities:
… at a first-aid post, at a rest centre, at an auxiliary hospital. She was in London all through the war, she worked as other women worked, throughout the bombing. She saw and experienced horrors which defy description.
The younger women, Susan and Pat, too have had their experience of the war which saw an overturning of class and social status, with Pat who is the daughter of a decorated General working as a cook in a hospital. As she tells to Macdonald (with all the arrogance of youth and the assurance of being an authorial favourite):
“You once called us ‘children’…. You’re like my parents, you confuse age with experience. Susan has been in the Forces. I have worked in hospital. For between four and five years we have seen and heard more shocking things than my grandmother has seen and heard all her life. We’ve found out one thing: we know what it is to be afraid and yet keep our heads and behave as though we’re not afraid.”
Published in 1947 when India had either gained her independence or was on the verge of doing so, the novel then is an okay mystery (Macdonald’s admiration for the two girls afterall narrows the circle of suspects) but provides an interesting glimpse of British society as the Empire started disintegrating.
Do you like mysteries which also provide a glimpse of the times? Share your views.
First Line: “You don’t want a job, by any chance.”
Publication Details: London: Collins (The Crime Club), 1947.
First Published: 1947
Series: Robert Macdonald #29