The blog has been quiet for a few days as the death of my cousin has prompted a period of reflection on many things, not least the passage of time. Heather was someone I grew up with, and along with my other cousins, she was the dedicatee of The Frozen Shroud. The note she sent me in response is one I treasure, and to read it again now is poignant. She did a little writing herself, and I suspect that she found, as many of us do, that although writing can be challenging, it can also offer a degree of solace in difficult times.
My Forgotten Book for today was written by C.H.B. Kitchin, a talented novelist whose occasional detective novels have received well-merited praise. However, this particular book has certainly been forgotten. It never seems to be mentioned when Kitchin's crime fiction is discussed (which nowadays, admittedly, isn't very often.) It has recently been reprinted by Valancourt Books for the first time since its original appearance back in 1936. For me, the biggest mystery about Birthday Party is why it's been neglected until now, because I found it gripping.
To describe a novel as "a well-made book" is often a way of damning it with faint praise. But Birthday Party is very well-made, and that's a real strength.. It's a quiet story, and anyone seeking lots of melodramatic action should look elsewhere. But I found that the tension builds steadily, and I carried on reading until the end even when I had many other pressing things to do,because Kitchin had made me care about the characters, flawed though they are.
The story is told by four different people, and the shifting points of view are very well done. They are connected by Carlice Abbey - yes, this is a country house mystery, but with a difference. Isabel Carlice is a sharp-witted single woman who loves the Abbey garden, and continues to look after it after her brother dies in a mysterious gunroom accident - was it an accident, or (more likely) suicide? And if suicide, what was the motive? The dead man's widow, Dora, continues to live at the Abbey, while nursing a secret of her own. Her brother, Stephen, a failed novelist, decides to come to the Abbey to save himself from destitution. And meanwhile, the 21st birthday of young Ronnie is fast approaching - hence the title of the book. Ronnie is an idealistic Communist, and he has ideas of his own about what should happen when he inherits Carlice Abbey. A fifth character, a successful medical man, also plays a crucial part in the story, although he is not one of the narrators.
This story casts fascinating light on the period when it was written; Ronnie's political views were fashionable then, and people like the crime novelist Margaret Cole travelled to Russia, as Ronnie does just prior to his birthday, to marvel at the success Stalin was making of his post-revolution society. People worry in the book about an impending war,and there is a sense of doom which Kitchin conveys with many subtle touches. I like his deft way with words, as well as his ability to spring small surprises. He was a far better novelist than Margaret Cole, and, I suspect, much more perceptive, because much less opinionated and fixed in his views. This is an unusual and ironic crime novel which definitely deserves a wider readership.