This installment's forgotten mystery novel by a forgotten mystery author--Insoluble (1934), by Francis Everton--is very English (and very rare!). After my recent spate of hard-boiled reading I had to readjust slightly. But I soon felt right at home again. Insoluble is quite an interesting tale, rather strikingly modern in some ways.
What seems modern about Insoluble is its emphasis on realistic characters and setting and credible psychology over the mechanics of detection. In fact, though the novel was published in England by the Collins Crime Club, I'm not altogether certain in my mind how much a true detective novel it is. The police detection, by a local man, Inspector Pratt, is mostly behind the scenes. What progress is made in solving the crime is mostly through the groping intuitions of lay characters. Yet I, something of a detection addict, still found it an engrossing mystery.
I am getting ahead myself, however! What actually happens in Insoluble? Let us begin....
Essentially Insoluble is a classic tale of middle class (or upper middle class) English domestic murder. Sylvia Manning is trapped in a loveless marriage with Cecil Manning, managing director of the Ruston branch (apparently West Midlands vicinity) of British Industrial Chemicals, Ltd. The couple actually lives in the village of Haythorpe, with their two young children, Betty and Tony, and Cecil's imperious aunt, Jane Bickersteth, who raised him from a young age, after the death of his father and stepmother.
The story is told by Peter Lindsay, Cecil Manning's stepbrother (his mother married Cecil's father). Like Cecil, Peter was raised by "Aunt Jane" after their parents died, though he himself was no blood relation to Aunt Jane and had to accustom himself to her preference for Cecil. Further damaging Peter's relationship with Cecil, the latter man cut out the former in the pursuit of Sylvia some ten years before the novel begins.
There's also the matter of Cecil's "nasty streak of cruelty." As Peter tells it, with an image that is surely likely to strike us cold today: "I could never forget how, as a boy, when there were kittens to be drowned, [Cecil] would prefer dropping them on stone flags in the old stable yard behind the house."
As the novel opens Peter informs us that the previous evening he had been reading at Cecil's behest "a thesis on the chemical warfare of the future." Cecil, declares Peter, "loved horrors for their own sake" and found it engrossing reading. Peter for his part deems the thesis "gruesome stuff." It gives him bad dreams and a foreboding of disaster.
|this "gruesome stuff" appeals to sadistic Cecil Manning|
who "loved horrors for their own sake"
Sure enough, Sylvia appears in Peter's law office (he's the family lawyer) to tell him she must end the marriage with Cecil or she will have to do something even more drastic. Cecil's cruelty toward her is now finding expression in his contemptuous, abusive treatment of their delicate son, Tony. Aunt Jane supports Cecil in everything does, making Sylvia's life even more intolerable.
Complicating matters further, Sylvia has also found an extracurricular interest, the handsome and single Stephen Wainwright. To Peter, Sylvia confesses to a one-time hotel tryst with Stephen: "Well, we love each other. These things will happen. But we neither of us meant it to go so far."
Then there's Mr. Hawkesley, chief chemist at the Cecil's Ruston branch of British Industrial Chemicals, who is in a dispute over some business papers (concerning a patent application) that Cecil has seized but to which Hawkesley feels he has the right of ownership. Hawkesley, Peter informs us, is "an Irishman, one of the white-faced, black-haired, tense variety." Hawkesley's being Irish tends to being out Anglophiliac snark in our narrator, Peter:
He was not a bad sort, really, if you made sufficient allowance. But one never felt at home with him. He was an expert in grievances. Even in tennis flannels there was something about him vaguely reminiscent of a potato famine.
Completing the cast of main characters is Annabel, the charming and intelligent daughter of Dr. Strange (the Manning family physician) and Sylvia's closest lady friend. Annabel got a science degree in college and is desultorily looking for a teaching post as science mistress at a girls' school. Despite being older than Annabel, Peter is quite fond of her and he thinks she is of him, though she has also shown a certain interest in Hawkesley....
Things get progressively worse between Cecil and Sylvia at their home, Pipers, especially with Aunt Jane egging things on in her inimitable way. "She could so stress a word here and another there, she was so adept at innuendo," avows Peter, "that she could almost insult you by asking you to pass the marmalade.
At a bridge party where the above principals all are present, hot toddies (laced with lots of whiskey) are consumed. The next morning Cecil is found dead in his bed, overdosed on Sylvia's Perronal tablets (sleeping pills). Perronal, we find, is insoluble in water, but dissolves readily in alcohol solutions--especially when said solutions are warm.
Gossip soon runs amok in the village, as any reader of English murder mysteries can imagine. The high priestess of village gossip, Mrs. Manser--"like some big fat spider in the ivy, spying on the village and spinning scandal"--is another good character.
|Mrs. Manser is the "spider in the ivy... spinning scandal."|
Numerous disconcerting facts emerge:
Cecil's life was insured for 10,000 pounds.
Everyone knows about the strife between Sylvia and Cecil and Sylvia's attachment to Stephen.
Cecil supposedly made a new will, leaving everything to Aunt Jane in trust for the children, but no one admits ever having seen it and it now can't be found.
Hawkesley's patent has disappeared from the safe at Pipers.
Lights were seen switched on at Pipers early on the morning of Cecil's death.
It's no wonder the police are soon investigating the Pipers bridge party guests.
Insoluble is a well-written and engrossing mystery tale that I believe readers would enjoy today. The very clever, double-edged title is just one of numerous pleasing points about the novel.
"Francis Everton," the author of Insoluble, was actually Francis William Stokes (1883-1956), an engineer and the managing director (later chairman) of Stokes Castings, Ltd., a family firm located in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire (apparently the "Everton" in Francis Everton came from his mother, Harriet Everton).
Stokes was a key figure in the development of the centrifugal-casting process. While he made a greater mark in industrial technology than he did in detective fiction, the six Francis Everton mystery novels were favorably reviewed and four of them were published in the United States as well as England. Insoluble was praised by Compton Mackenzie "as a good murder story because the murder itself is credible and the characters are recognizable human beings." Dorothy L. Sayers found it "intriguing and full of life and movement."
|Compton Mackenzie praised Insoluble|
for having a"credible" murder
and characters that are
"recognizable human beings"
Though written by an engineer, Insoluble differs from works by Stokes' better-known fellow engineers/detective novelists, Freeman Wills Crofts and Cecil John Charles Street, in being more literary in style (there are even epigraphs for each chapter) and far less dependent on material detail and painstaking detection. Clearly Insoluble is a step in the direction of the psychological crime novel, away from classical detective fiction.
In an author's note at the beginning of Insoluble Stokes thanks his wife and his brother for the "considerable help" they gave him with the novel. Stokes' brother, Arthur Meredith Stokes (1886-1965), was a solicitor, just like the narrator of the novel. It is also worth nothing that Stokes' two sisters, Edith May and Margaret Elizabeth, were teachers, like Annabel Strange in the novel.
Stokes' father, William Edward Stokes, started an iron foundry, the fount of the family fortune (and the setting of Stokes' detective novel The Hammer of Doom); yet before that the Stokes family line was headed by three generations of butchers, going back to the 1700s (periodic reference is made to the village butcher, Blagg, in Insoluble). Judging by Insoluble, Stokes had a good feeling for middle class English life in the 1930s. Insoluble is singularly lacking in country houses and aristocrats.
Unfortunately, Insoluble is quite a rare book. My own copy is ex-library and has been read nearly to death, its blue library covers barely holding together (incidentally it came from an address in Haxby Road, York, a onetime lending library that appears to be a Blockbuster now!). My hope is that Insoluble can be reprinted in a modern edition, because today's mystery fiction fans should enjoy it. The novel is realistic 1930s English domestic crime fiction at its best.
The detective novels of Francis Everton (Francis William Stokes)
The Dalehouse Murder (1927)
The Hammer of Doom (1929)
Murder at Plenders (1930)
The Young Vanish (1932)
Murder May Pass Unpunished (1936)
For Part One in this series, see http://thepassingtramp.blogspot.com/2012/01/forgotten-books-by-forgotten-authors.html --The Passing Tramp