Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Odd Ducks: Odd Woman Out (1958), by Sebastian Fox (Gerald Bullett)--and a contest

In my review of the thriller I'll Tell You Everything, by Gerald Bullett and J. B. Priestley, I mentioned how these two respected English authors, primarily associated primarily with "mainstream" works, wrote some additional crime and mystery fiction, including legitimate detective novels.  Today I am reviewing one by Gerald Bullett; in a few days I will review one by J. B. Priestley.

Near the end of his life, Gerald Bullett (1893-1958), published two legitimate detective novels under the pseudonym Sebastian Fox. I didn't like the first Fox novel, One Man's Poison (1956), but I enjoyed the second (and regrettably last), Odd Woman Out.  The first novel was to me a yawner with exceedingly unlikable characters, while the second stands with the best English village mysteries from the 1950s that I have read.  It makes me regret Bullett did not live to provide us any further tales of detection.

there's been an odd death at Regency Cottage....
First let me note that in its front matter Odd Woman Out is explicitly labeled a detective story and an essay in detection by, respectively, the publisher and the author.

What a nice contrast this is with the American publisher Harper & Row, where beginning in the 1950s renowned editor Joan Kahn (1904-1984) seems to have labeled every mystery the firm published a novel of suspense, even if it was actually a detective novel.

This suggests that Odd Woman Out effort was a cri de couer of sorts on Bullett's part--even if it was published by him under a pseudonym.

At one point in Odd Woman Out Bullett's amateur detective, the avuncular and Edwardian solicitor George Lydney, visits the "one and only bookshop" is Sadlers Green, the village where the queer death has taken place, and purchases "the new Agatha Christie." He presents the book to one of the Turpin sisters (more about them anon), whereupon the following conversation takes place:

"Just what I wanted, Mr. Lydney.  It's my favorite sort of reading."

"I rather thought it was," said George, smiling.

"Not that I bother much with clues and things," she confided.  "To tell you the truth I find all that rather muddling.  It's the story I enjoy.  The people, you know."

This is probably true of quite a few classical mystery readers (and no doubt would surprise those scoffers who think that Agatha Cristie's appeal lies exclusively in puzzle devising).  Odd Woman Out fortunately resembles a Christie novel in that a reader can enjoy both the situation and characters, as well as the puzzle.  It works on both levels.

In milieu Odd Woman Out quite resembles a village Christie.  There's the quaint village Sadlers Green, there's the exquisite little house (Regency Cottage) where the Misses Penelope and Clara Turpin live and there's the cast of characters, predominantly women.

The titular odd woman out is Emily Pratt, a recently widowed cousin of the Turpin sisters.  A charitable pair, the Turpins invite Emily to come live with them--much to their regret, for Emily turns out to be demanding, deceitful, selfish, sour, malingering and malicious.

Not long before Christmas, Emily is found dead in her bedroom, which is reeking of coal gas [on this point see Roger Allen's comment below].

Gerald Bullett
 Soon the police suspect murder, but their investigation is complicated by the fact that Joy Newcome and Gerald Weir, a younger sister and a nephew of the Misses Turpin, were visiting at the time of Emily's demise.

Also present was the Turpin's "home help," Kate Mortimer, who, though she comes of genteel origins, actually is eccentric enough to enjoy housework and has made it her profession (the Turpin sisters are quite amazed by this, though exceedingly grateful for Mortimer's ministrations).

Oh, and don't forget those Christmas carolers who were milling around the Turpin house that night!  It seems Emily was a devotee of a fundamentalist church, headed by Arthur Immanuel Goope, and Goope and a rival with Emily for Goope's ministerial attentions, Antonia Limpid, were among the carollers, as was a new member of the church, the lovely bank clerk Muriel Tallow.*

*(Yes, there's some satire against fundamentalist religion here.  Classical English mystery tends to look down on what it frequently terms "religious enthusiasm."  Chief Inspector Jannock tellingly declares, "I never did care for religious mania.")

As you can see, Bullett is scrupulous about providing the reader with a variety of suspects!

The mystery has interesting twists and turns and the writing is smooth and quite enjoyable.  Although Reverend Goope never emerges from the author's rather harsh caricature, the other suspects are subtly done and memorable, especially Penelope Turpin (she published a book of "rhyming platitudes" called Life's Little Lessons back in the 1930s, and she is quite found of quoting from it).

The amateur detective, George Lydney, and the police detectives, Chief inspector Jannock and Sergeant Eustace Oak, are quite well done too.  Sergeant Oak is dapper young highbrow and his humorous byplay with Jannock rather reminded me of Hathaway and Lewis from the British Lewis series.

Sergeant Hathaway (Lewis)
See, for example, this exchange from the novel:

"I agree with you, Chief," said Oak.  "Good morning, Mr. Lydney.  I don't know what I'm agreeing with this time, but I'm sure I do."  Standing languidly before them, a slim neat figure, he fingered his tie and glanced appraisingly at the crease in his trousers.  "What are you drinking, Mr. Jannock?"

"And he calls himself a detective!" said Jannock, scornfully indicating his tankard.  "No more, Eustace.  I've got half a pint left."

"What about you, Mr. Lydney?  They have a very tolerable sherry here.  Or would you prefer a martini?"

Bullett keeps the reader in suspense until very nearly the end of the novel--although it must be admitted that in part that this abeyance is due to his holding so many clues in his hand until late in the game.

Still, decisive clues finally are played and Lydney is legitimately able to intuit his way to a solution of what is, all in all, a most excellent mystery.  As I stated above, it's a loss for the reader that Bullett did not live to pen another one of these "Sebastian Fox" detective novels. With Odd Woman Out, Bullett had hit his stride.

Contest Notice: I have an extra copy of Odd Woman Out and if you would like it, why don't you send me an email (click my "about me" link on the upper right of the page to get the address), listing resemblances between the plot elements in Odd Woman Out that I've described above and any in specific books by the Crime Queens Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh (I have two books in mind, but you may think of some others).  I'll keep this contest open through the end of the week.  The winner will be the one listing the most novels, the tie winner, if there is a tie, will be the one who emailed first.  I will pay basic shipping, as long as it's to the United States or Canada.  Good luck!


  1. "Not long before Christmas, Emily is found dead in her bedroom, which is reeking of carbon monoxide."
    CO is odourless- is it you or Bullet who makes this mistake- or is it a deliberate error?

  2. Hi, Roger, I checked the book again and it does refer to carbon monoxide poisoning and also to "a smell of gas in the room."

    You know, oddly enough, I just reviewed a John Street book and he had death by carbon monoxide poisoning in a room and he didn't refer to smell. But then Street was a man of science! It's one of the things I find interesting in his books.

    An experiment is ever performed in the Street book. I should have thought of that when I read the Bullett!

    However, the exact cause of death in the Bullett book is more complicated than it seems at first.

  3. May not be a mistake in the book then- the room would be reeking of gas but Emily Turpin's death caused by CO poisonong.
    "A smell of gas in the room" would refer to coal gas- gas made from coal, supplied by pipe and used for domestic heating and lighting and cooking in the UK until the late 1960s and which was deliberately given a powerful smell as the CO and other gases in it made it very poisonous. It was the most common method of committing suicide in the UK until it was replaced by natural gas- Sylvia Plath is one example.

    1. Street specifically refers to coal gas in Twice Dead. See the review on the first page, by the way.

      In Street's book, published in 1960, the "old-fashioned fireplace" has been replaced by a "modern smokeless fuel burning grate."

      Thanks for the info, I always find this sort of thing fascinating, a nice break from the poetical allusions in Michael Innes, for example!

    2. In GREEN FOR DANGER, Christianna Brand refers several times to the 'fug' of coal gas following the old 'leave the gas tap on then put a shilling in the meter later trick.

    3. Rich, yes, in Odd Woman Out we have our old friend, the gas tap, again involved....