Family Matters, my latest Forgotten Book, isn't set at Yuletide, but Christmas is a family time of year, so perhaps it's an appropriate choice. The novel dates from 1934. It is one of four books that C.E. Vulliamy published before the Second World War under the name Anthony Rolls, although he wrote several crime novels under his own name in later years. Way back in 2009, I wrote a blog post about his debut, Clerical Error, and I've been meaning to come back to this writer for ages. Now I've read two of his other books in quick succession. This one is excellent, and if it were not for my reservations about the latter stages of the story, I'd call it a masterpiece.
The family of the title is the Kewdinghams (one of Vulliamy's quirks is a taste for unusual surnames; I suppose he was trying to avoid the risk of libel, but the overall effect is off-putting, at least to me.) Robert, age 47, has been unemployed since he lost his job in the Slump, and he lives increasingly in a fantasy world. His wife, Bertha, is some years younger, attractive, and fed up. She has two admirers, one of them a doctor, the other a novelist.
I don't want to say too much about the way in which the story develops, because if you read it, you'll find it a pleasure to come afresh to the central situation which makes this book very distinctive. Suffice to say that it is to do with poisons. Dorothy L. Sayers heaped praise on this book, but even she admitted that she had no idea whether what Vulliamy was saying about poisons was accurate. I didn't find it especially convincing, but that didn't matter much. It's a very, very good set-up, handled with plenty of irony and satire.
I became engrossed in the situation and the characters, but I did feel that once a death finally occurs, Vulliamy became so preoccupied with unravelling the tangle he'd created that he lost sight of the characters, and this for me was the flaw that deprives the book of the status of absolute classic. Vulliamy was influenced by Francis Iles, but in the three Iles books, the psychology of the central characters remains of critical importance from start to finish. I think that is, in part, why Iles' books, or at least the first two, have stood the test of time better. But Vulliamy was a fascinating writer, and this is a book I can warmly recommend. There is also an excellent review on the Pretty Sinister blog, and an equally good article about the author by Curtis Evans in issue 68 of CADS - Curt commented on my original post about Rolls/Vulliamy, and it remains the case today, as then, that his crime fiction deserves to be reprinted.