Friday, 7 November 2008

Forgotten book - Fear and Miss Betony

My latest contribution to Patti Abbott's series of forgotten books is Dorothy Bowers' Fear and Miss Betony. Once rather obscure, this title has recently been republished in a modestly priced paperback edition by the admirable Rue Morgue Press.

Rue Morgue have revived some very interesting yet neglected Golden Age writers and Dorothy Bowers is possibly the most interesting of them all. They have reprinted all five of Bowers’ crime novels. This one, first published in 1941, marked the final appearance of her likeable series detective, Inspector Dan Pardoe, although he only turns up towards the end of the story. Bowers’ early death from TB robbed British crime fiction of one of its great hopes – she was seen by some as a natural successor to that other Dorothy, Miss Sayers. This book was much praised in its day, not least by the great American critic James Sandoe, and the publishers summarise its appeal thus: ‘The Golden Age of detective fiction was known for elaborate plots. This may well be the most ingenious one of them all.’

Oddly, though, I’m not sure that the ingenuity of the plot is the real reason why the book deserves t be revived. 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 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, 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. But the victim is not the person whom one has been led to expect: shades of Agatha Christie's Peril at End House. Unfortunately, the detective work seems a bit perfunctory and at least one clue is withheld from the reader. More important, there are too many characters and so one quickly comes to the conclusion that the culprit is likely to be one of the few who are truly memorable. In the end, I still can’t understand why the murderer went to so much trouble. It seemed to me that the objective might have been achieved more easily and at much less risk. The over-riding merit of the book lies not in the plot but in the splendid characterisation of Emma Betony.


Anonymous said...

The over-riding merit of the book lies not in the plot but in the splendid characterisation of Emma Betony.

Isn't this true of all the best books?

pattinase (abbott) said...

A great character can make up for a lot. Thanks, Martin

Martin Edwards said...

Hi John, great to hear from you. I think it is true of all the best books, but not necessarily of all the best Golden Age detective stories. For instance, the over-riding merit of some of Agatha Christie's most successful books isn't the characterisation but the plot (in my opinion.)

Jodie Robson said...

What an wonderful idea - I love forgotten books. I must look at your other choices.