Tuesday, 22 January 2008

The trouble with ingenuity

I’m someone who loves elaborate plots in crime novels, and as I mentioned the other day, I started Fear and Miss Betony, by Dorothy Bowers, with high hopes, given the claim that ‘The Golden Age of detective fiction was known for elaborate plots. This may well be the most ingenious one of them all.’ Now I’ve finished the book, I’m reflecting on both its strengths and its weaknesses.

Bowers’ writing style is literate and appealing. Here, the encounter between the eponymous Emma Betony and a sinister fortune teller called The Great Ambrosio is highly atmospheric and memorable. The setting (the book was published in 1941) is nicely done; the story gives a reminder that, albeit changed, life in England still went on while the Second World War raged. And Bowers understood the importance of character. Right at the end, Inspector Dan Pardoe makes the point that: ‘The key to this was character – as to so much else. The impact of character on circumstance, circumstance on character.’

The structure of the book is unusual. Emma is brought in by her former pupil, Grace Aram, to help understand an apparent campaign to murder a patient run at the nursing home-cum-school that Grace runs. Pardoe only appears near the end of the book, after murder is done. But the victim is not the person whom one has been led to expect: shades of Christie’s Peril at End House.

However, there are shortcomings. The detective work seems a bit perfunctory and at least one clue is withheld from the reader – not exactly fair play. More important, there are too many characters (this is a subject touched on in a recent post and comments.) This means that one quickly comes to the conclusion that the culprit is likely to be one of the few individuals in the story who is truly memorable. Worst of all, I still can’t understand why the murderer went to so much trouble. It seems to me that the objective might have been achieved more easily and at much less risk.

This is the trouble with ingenuity – much as I admire it. Sometimes the whole exercise is over the top. Ultimately, the reason I like the book is not because of the plot (because I’m afraid I figured out the solution some time before the end) but because Emma Betony is a splendid character, depicted with skill. One can see that the author really liked her, and with good reason. My favourite Bowers book remains Deed Without a Name, but Rue Morgue Press have done whodunit fans a real service by reprinting all her five novels. Each of them has elements of distinction and her early death was a tragedy that robbed us of a writer of genuine talent and rich promise.

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