Friday 15 March 2024

Forgotten Book - Lion in the Cellar

Pamela Branch's career as a crime writer was cut short by her early death from cancer in 1967, but although she only published four novels, they earned the approval of such expert judges as Francis Iles, to whom she dedicated one of her books. I think it's probably fair to say that her books may be an acquired taste - Julian Symons, first instance, was impervious to her charms - but I like her zany humour.

Her second novel, Lion in the Cellar, first appeared in 1951. Her publisher was Robert Hale, who are generally associated with the library market - so first editions are scarce, although happily there have been paperbacks, including a green Penguin edition from 1962, which mentions that she was working on a fifth book. Perhaps illness prevented her from finishing it. Her writing style strikes me as very concentrated, and perhaps the intense effort that, I suspect, she had to expend on making each story work explains why she produced relatively little. The late Tom and Enid Schantz admired her work and their Rue Morgue Press reprinted all four titles.

The main setting of this story is a disreputable London pub called the Carp, overseen by the formidable landlady, Mrs Filby. We are quickly introduced to a large cast of characters - her regulars and people who live nearby. Among them is George Heap, an amiable-seeming chap who happens to be a serial killer. His niece Sukie, who is charming and naive but incurably dishonest, is married to a hapless young barrister. Her grandmother too was a serial killer, while her mother was an arsonist. So what chance does poor Sukie have?

I enjoyed this book. At times the convolutions are excessive, and it's not always easy to keep track of what is going on, but there is ample compensation in some very funny lines and situations. Branch really was very witty and I think her work deserves to be better known.


Kate said...

I read this one before starting my blog and I have it in the Rue Morgue Press edition that you mention. I think out of the four this one and The Wooden Overcoat are the best.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Kate. I read that one a very long time ago - remember enjoying it, but that's about all I can recall!

Scott Herbertson said...

I think all four (I've read them but long ago) are much of a muchness but my personal preference was for 'Murder every Monday' with its memorable 'Asterisk Club' for murderers. It had a whiff of Evelyn Waugh's Bollinger Club from Decline and Fall about it if I recall correctly