Friday, November 13, 2020

The Game Goes On: Death in the Grand Manor (1970), by Anne Morice

By 1970 the Golden Age of detective fiction, which had dawned in splendor  a half-century earlier in 1920, had sunk into shadow like the sun at eventide, yet there were still a few old hands practicing the fine art of finely clued murder, plus there were some new ones in the offing.  A good thing too: murder needs new blood.  For example, Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner, a veritable fiction factory in and of himself, died that very year, in March, at the age of eighty.  His last detective novels were published posthumously, in 1971 and 1972.  Eighty-four-year-old Christopher Bush published his final mystery, The Case of the Prodigal Daughter, in 1969, the same year eighty-three-year-old Rex Stout published Death of a Dude, which would be remain most recently published mystery for four years.

On the other hand, Agatha Christie, who like Gardner was eighty years old, to much fanfare produced what her publishers dubbed an "extravaganza," Passenger to Frankfurt.  While admittedly not (ahem!) the greatest moment in Christie's career, the novel was an international bestseller.  John Dickson Carr and Ellery Queen, mere youngsters in their sixties, respectively published The Ghosts' High Noon and The Last Woman in His Life, though neither of those titles was, sad to say, a great example of detective fiction either.  

Mr. Campion's Falcon, the second Albert Campion mystery penned by the late Margery Allingham's spouse, Philip Youngman Carter, was published, albeit posthumously "Pip" having passed away himself in 1969.  Seventy-five year old Ngaio Marsh published a travelogue mystery, When in Rome, not one of her better books in my view.  Gladys Mitchell and Anthony Gilbert, both around seventy, published respectively Gory Dew and Death Wears a Mask, neither of which I've read.  Leo Bruce, nearly seventy himself, published Death on Allhallowe'en, by no means his best mystery but certainly a worthy effort.  

Sixty-four year old Michael Innes, who would hang in the writing game for nearly two more decades, published Death at the Chase, easily outlasting his fellow "Detection Don" Nicholas Blake, whose last novel, The Private Wound, appeared in 1968.  (Blake would pass away in 1972.)  Elizabeth Ferrars, who came along at the tail end of the Golden Age and was now sixty-three, published The Seven Sleepers, which is pretty interesting as I recollect and one of the few by her which takes place in her ancestral homeland of Scotland, always a great setting for mysteries.

However, there were also other, younger authors, many of whom were at the top of their games.  Writers like Patricia Moyes, who had been at it for just over a decade then, who published the excellent Who Saw Her Die?  There was HRF Keating, who also debuted in 1959, with another of his Indian mysteries, Inspector Ghote Breaks an Egg.  There was also American Emma Lathen, who had promisingly debuted in 1961, with Pick up Sticks.  Back in England there was Joyce Porter, who had memorably debuted in 1964,  with Dover Strikes Again and Catherine Aird, who had followed Porter two years later in 1966, with A Late Phoenix.  

There was as well Ruth Rendell, who had debuted in 1964, with another of her reliable Inspector Wexford series mysteries, A Guilty Thing Surprised.  And there was newcomer Peter Lovesey, who debuted with his Victorian mystery Wobble to Death, recently reissued in a commemorative edition, and  Reginald Hill, who likewise debuted with  A Clubbable Woman.  (Both Lovesey and Hill were just lads in their thirties in those days!)  Another newcomer of promise was Margaret Yorke, who debuted with Dead in the Morning, the first in her short-lived Patrick Grant detective series.

And then there was another debut performer, Anne Morice (1916-1989), with her self-professed "novel of detection" (it says so right on the front of the dust jacket), Death in the Grand Manor.  Truly 1970 was a good year.

the graphics may be Seventies 
but the milieu is Thirties

Anne Morice's Death in the Grand Manor introduced the author's admirable series sleuth, Tessa Crichton, who would appear in and narrate 23 detective novels between 1970 and 1988.  Tessa is a young actress who has a penchant, as all amateur detectives do, for crossing paths (and swords) with Murder in all its foul and fair guises.  In Manor Tessa is staying with her willful and eccentric playwright cousin, Toby Crichton, at his house in the tiny wealthy community of Roakes Common, located not far from London, in order to look after Toby's precocious eleven-year-old daughter Ellen, while his second wife, Ellen's stepmother Matilda, is mostly away at a stage acting gig.  

Roakes Common is a village right out of the pages of Agatha Christie, as Tessa--who is compared to a youthful Miss Marple in reference to her nosiness when she scents murder--reveals in her narration:

Roakes Common....consists of twenty or thirty houses, two pubs and a combined post office and store, set in a hundred acres of commonland.  The Common is divided down the middle by the road which joins Storhampton, in the Thames Valley, with Dedley, twenty miles to the north.  

There's even a gardener named Parkes and a housecleaner named Mrs. Grumble!

Sadly a most objectionable family, the Cornfords, has recently purchased the derelict old manor house in Roakes Common, upsetting the pleasant status quo.  Douglas Cornford, "the son of an industrial tycoon from the Midlands," comes with an overbearing wife, Bronwen, and two exceedingly obnoxious children.  Bronwen, in particular, manages to offend everyone in the community, including a gay (in both senses of the word) male couple, the Biblically named Peter and Paul, who rather reminded me of the lesbian couple in Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced, published two decades earlier.  

Halfway though the novel occurs the expected murder--and then Tessa is on the hunt!  She's also on the lookout for the handsome blond man she briefly talked up at the pub, when batty Bronwen stormed in and caused a dreadful dust-up.  Could there be romance as well as murder in the air for our Tessa?

When it was published in 1970, Death in the Grand Manor received stellar reviews, though "light" was an adjective almost invariably applied to it.  Apparently reviewers had not yet discovered the term "cozy," of which Manor seems an early example.  Yet despite the cozy setting there's a tartness to Tessa's narration and the brittle dialogue which reminds me of the Golden Age Crime Queens and even, to part from mystery for a minute, Noel Coward.  It may be cozy but it's certainly not cloying.  Morice  definitely avoids soppiness and sentimentality and her Tessa repeatedly reveals a nice turn for phrase. "Sackcloth and ashes would have been overdressing for the mood I had sunk into by then," she observes at one point.

Fittingly the novel was enthusiastically reviewed by Golden Age stalwarts Edmund Crispin and Francis Iles (aka Anthony Berkeley Cox).  Crispin found it a "charming whodunit....full of unforced buoyance" and prescribed it as a "remedy for existentialist gloom."  Iles, who would pass away at the age of 77 less than six months after penning this review, deemed the novel a "most attractive lightweight," adding:

entertainingly written, it provides a modern version of the classical type of detective story.  I was much taken with the cheerful young narrator...and I think most readers will feel the same way.  Warmly recommended.

It was like a benediction from one of the high priests of English murder, back from the time when fictional foul play was an amusement.  

Once the bright young hope of classic English crime, Edmund Crispin, long sunk in bouts of existential gloom, would survive Iles by only seven years, dying in 1978 at the age of 56.  But happily for detective fiction fans, new talents like Anne Morice had entered the ranks and would remain there for some time to come.

I am pleased to report that Anne Morice's Tessa Crichton detective novels will be reprinted by Dean Street Press next year.  For more on the fascinating background of the author, see an earlier post by me here.  Look for an interview with a daughter of Anne Morice at this blog later this year.

6 comments:

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  2. “Warmly recommended” by Anthony Berkeley Cox / Francis Iles is enough to catch my attention. Glad to read that the book will be republished soon!

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    1. It also received strong reviews from Anthony Lejeune and Maurice Richardson, the latter of whom went back a long way as a detective fiction reviewer.

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  3. I have that same copy on my shelf, I must have another look! I enjoyed Morice books back in the day, but had no idea there were so many, so will be able to enjoy the DSP reprints.

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    1. You lucky thing, you, it it's vg condition or better it's probably worth at least 100 USD. Her early books, which were never published in the US or reprinted in pb are rather dear today, if you can find copies at all. Of course they will be back in print with DSP next year,

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  4. Oh, I am so pleased that Morice--one of my absolute favorites--is getting reprinted! I think the reprint will be a big success.

    I also have a very good condition copy of Death in the Grand Manor, which I was able to pick up in 2009 or 2010 for around $30. I own all of her books except Death of a Gay Dog, which I was never able to get my hands on--there was a copy a few years ago for $60 or so which I dithered on buying and then it was gone--I always regretted not pulling the trigger. I am ecstatic that I'll be able to finally read it next year.

    I'm using a lot of superlatives here but Morice easily makes my top 10 favorite writers or so, and I've re-read most of her novels. Some of them are better than others, as is so often the case, but her wit and attention to craft never wavers. If I had to choose a favorite, I think 1979's Murder in Outline is her most perfect meringue of a novel.

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