Friday, February 14, 2020

When Will You Pay Me? The Bells at Old Bailey (1947), by Dorothy Bowers

When Will You Pay Me?
Say the Bells at Old Bailey
--Oranges and Lemons aka The Bells of London (trad. English nursery rhyme)

But I believe you--oh yes.  Women aren't content with suicides.  Nothing short of murder for them.  And we call 'em the gentle sex!
--The Bells at Old Bailey, Dorothy Bowers

In 1947, after an interval of six years since the appearance of her last mystery, Fear for Miss Betony, Dorothy Bowers published what proved to be her fifth and final work of crime fiction, The Bells at Old Bailey.  In remembrance of "the dark years" (presumably the late Second World War, during which she had not published a book), Bowers dedicated the novel to her steadfast English publisher, Hodder & Stoughton, who had issued all her mysteries in England, to much critical acclaim. 

a novel of detection
Hodder and Stoughton edition
On the dust jacket, Bells was pugnaciously subtitled, in the dawning era of the psychological crime story, "a novel of detection," which may have helped spur Bowers' elevation to membership in England's Detection Club.  She died the next year, at the age of forty-six, doubtlessly resulting in the loss to the world of at least several more of the author's quietly literate novels of detection.  So Bells remains our last word on Dorothy Bowers and where she was headed as a mystery writer.  How does it toll for thee?

In a slightly earlier blog piece, I commented about how markedly feminine is the milieu which Bowers presents readers in Fear for Miss Betony.  The same point obtains as well in Bells, although here we see more of the forces of the official--and hence, at that time, mostly male--world of police, doctors and lawyers. 

The main setting is Miss Bertha Tidy's establishment "Minerva's," a hat shop and beauty parlor with cafe located in the village of Ravenchurch.  Miss Tidy's charming cottage, The Keepsake, located in the nearby village of Long Greeting, where she dwells with her Breton housekeeper Leonie, is also a focal point.  With one exception, the main characters--Miss Tidy and Leonie, the girls employed at the hat shop (I was reminded, with them, of Christianna Brand's Death in High Heels), antiquarian bookstore owner Emmie Weaver, tweedy, Dorothy Sayers-ish mystery writer Kate Beaton--are all female. 

The exception is "great novelist" Owen Greatorex, who remains a somewhat amorphous character. There is also clever Inspector Raikes of Scotland Yard, who may have been intended as a new series sleuth; but he mainly struck me for his sweeping sexist comments about women, a proclivity he shares with other male characters in the book.  I think Bowers was making a point here!

Bells has been called a poison pen mystery, by the by, but it really is not, as I define it.  Poison pen mysteries ideally involve masses of anonymous missive sent to various people at a specific location, preferably an English village, making scurrilous and scandalous accusations.  In threatening letter mysteries, like Bells, Philip Macdonald's RIP, Ngaio Marsh's Photo Finish and PD James' The Skull Beneath the Skin, menacing letters are mailed to one specific target, forecasting imminent death or harm.

There have been five recent deaths in Long Greeting, all of them ruled suicides.  These have not been the result of poison pen letters, however, but something else, something rather insidious as well....

corn measures

When the novel opens Miss Tidy is planning a visit to the local police to bring to their attention a couple of anonymous, vaguely threatening letters which she has received.  After she makes her carefully tailored complaint to the police, it's not long before she herself is found dead, battered with a corn measure and strangled with a scarf.  During the heyday of the Golden Age of detective fiction, when bizarre murders rather than subtle psychological delineations were the thing, this might have resulted in the novel being mechanically titled The Corn Measure Murder.  I was reminded of Agatha Christie's early Fifties detective novel Mrs. McGinty's Dead, where the murder weapon was a sugar cutter.

American edition
Bowers is as interested in characterization as well as detection, however; and this is well done on the whole, especially with the splendidly named murder victim Miss Tidy and several other women.  The plot is good, though there are some flaws in my view, which I can get into without spoilers.  There seem to me a few signs of haste around the edges, despite the fact that it is a long detective novel for the period, close to 100,000 words by my count.  Still, I would say that all in all this is a fine mystery that presaged more fine mysteries, but for a life sadly truncated.

A few words on the title.  It references a well-known English nursery rhyme, verses of which provide the headings for chapter titles (more relevantly so than you typically find with other mystery writers, like Gladys Mitchell). 

The dust jacket of the English edition (see above) incorporates the early nineteenth century sampler by young Adelaide Bascomb, age eight, which illustrates the nursery rhyme and hangs in Miss Tidy's quaint, if something less than cozy, cottage.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Coming Attractions in February and March: All for the Love of the Crime Ladies

I was kept rather busy most of January, so was not even able to finish my Ten Carrs of Christmas.  Which puts me in a quandary: do I do finish them now, or in December?  What do you think?

What I was doing, however, was completing introductions to Dean Street Press' new set of Golden Age Moray Daltons and first set of Golden Age Henrietta Clandons (including one of my absolute faves from the era, Good by Stealth), as well as a new article on poison pen mysteries in fact and fiction for CrimeReads and an introduction to the latest Bernice Carey "twofer" by Stark House, which collects her mid-century crime novels The Reluctant Murderer and The Body on the Sidewalk

The Reluctant Murderer
I reviewed, quite favorably, here in 2018.

Speaking of Stark House, their new Ruth Fenisong twofer, for which I wrote the introduction, is out now.  At this blog I have written enthusiastically about both the author and her work.  Like Bernice Carey, she is another accomplished mid-century American woman crime writer.  Although her career in the genre was longer lived than Carey's, both she and Carey fell out of print, most unjustly, after they stopped writing crime fiction.

So that is four women vintage crime writers, two British and two American, whom of late I have been involved with resurrecting, which is always a great feeling.  Except one of them wasn't actually a woman: Henrietta Clandon.  As Austin Powers might say, she's a man, baby!  But don't fret: as someone else said, approximately, a rose by any other name smells as sweet.  More anon.

Women's Worlds: Fear for Miss Betony (1941), by Dorothy Bowers

When in 2005 Rue Morgue Press reprinted the five detective novels of Englishwoman Dorothy Violet Bowers (1902-1948), it presaged the wave of vintage mystery reprinting which really began in earnest about a decade later.  Consequently, Bowers may have been somewhat superseded in readers' minds by the more recent stuff of the last five years (though her books have also now been issued in attractive new editions by a rival press, Moonstone).

Speaking for myself, I first read Bowers' books about twenty years ago, and was especially impressed with The Bells at Old Bailey (1947), the last novel she published before her premature death at age forty-six from tuberculosis (a few years before the disease also claimed George Orwell).  Another I like is Fear for Miss Betony, published in 1941. However, I found on rereading the two novels recently that I had forgotten a lot about them, including whodunit!

autograph in my copy of Fear for Miss Betony
On rereading both Fear for Miss Betony and The Bells at Old Bailey struck me in the overwhelming dominance of the books, masculine legal apparatus aside, by women's characters in women's worlds.  In Fear for Miss Betony, there is really only one significant male character, a fortuneteller known as the "Great Ambrosio," and though he is much mentioned, he actually only speaks in one chapter. 

Bowers' series Scotland Yard detectives, Inspector Dan Pardoe and Sergeant Salt, appear, rather perfunctorily and without much personality, only four-fifths of the way into the book, with Pardoe only doing clean up duty.  Aside from these men and an arrogant male doctor named Bolt who occasionally strikes a pose in the tale, the characters in Fear are almost exclusively women, headed by the title character, Miss Emma Betony, a sixty-one year old retired governess of limited means facing a crossroads in her life when the novel opens. 

Residing on the attic floor of a drab boarding house in the provincial town of Churchway, Miss Betony rejects an invitation to reside at the "Toplady Endowed Homes for Decayed Gentlewomen," even though this means, with her declining resources, that she will have to go on parish relief.  The impetus for her decision was one of the snobbish shabby genteel "Topladies" warning her that her application might be rejected, as her "dear father was in trade, after all."

Yes, it seems that Miss Betony's father was a greengrocer.  Heavens!  This catty comment from her supposed friend mortifies Miss Betony, but also sets her resolve to turn thumbs down to Toplady and the people it represents: "the most vulnerable order on earth, the little people with small incomes, smaller brains, and smallest talents...."

Providentially, Miss Betony gets an invitation to visit from one of her former charges, the only one with whom she ever kept up correspondence, Grace Aram.  For a woman who had charge of children so long, Miss Betony has surprisingly negative views of them (or perhaps this is not surprising):

Privately, she thought them odious, and wondered increasingly why the thought should have to be private. Why was it taboo to confess antipathy to the human young?  The lip service universally paid to love of them was, she felt, defensible only on the grounds that we had got to make the best of a bad bargain....It was a colossal game of let's pretend...Like smothering a pill with jam.

These books are supposed to be cozies, recall!

Anyway, Grace, all grown up now (and then some), is now running a small girls' school, Makeways, in the town of Bugle in Dorset; and she needs help from Miss Betony, or "Bet," as she calls her.  First, she wants her to teach a few girls in senior German and French.  Second, and more importantly, she wants help with some mysterious problem afflicting the school which she can't mention in the letter.

So off Bet goes to Makeways--where the fear begins.  Bet learns from Grace that Makeways formerly was a private nursing home "charging unheard-of fees for coddling the rich who wanted to be coddled."  Grace had to take over two of these residents who wouldn't leave--a Miss Thurloe and a Miss Wand.  It's fussy Miss Thurloe who is the problem to which Grace referred in the letter, because it appears that someone has been poisoning the noisome old dame with arsenic.  Grace tells clever Bet that she wants her to help discern just what devilry is going on at Makeways.

the devil made him do it
Once on the case, Bet finds a very strange affair indeed, somehow involving a magnetic (at least to many of the women of Makeways) fortuneteller who goes by the name of the "Great Ambrosio."  Not for nothing, readers will find, does his name recall the title character of Matthew Lewis' landmark Gothic horror novel The Monk (1796).

Indeed, Fear has the trappings of a Gothic horror novel, with its setting of a dilapidated country house (it's even dark a lot of the time because of the wartime blackout) and its devilishly charming male up to...well, what is he up to, precisely?  And at the novel's center we have a woman detective figure, Miss Betony, though she's far off in age from the imperiled ingenues of Gothic mystery.* 

*(Indeed, we keep hearing about she old she is, which gets a little tiresome as she's only sixty-one!)

It is Miss Betony who solves much of the mystery herself (eventually there is a murder, and another attempted one), leaving the professionals, as I mentioned, to do clean-up.  Dorothy Bowers is to be commended for "going long," so to speak, with her plot resolution.  The payoff is immense if you don't see it coming ahead of time.  I did, but then some of the reviews of this novel over the years have been a little free with their plot descriptions, in my opinion.  (I hope I haven't been!)  To be sure, there are some improbabilities, but the whole thing is nicely clued and the puzzle, if unlikely, flows naturally from character as it is given to us.  In other words, it rings psychologically true.

Altogether it's an impressive affair, a sort of transition between the Golden Age detective novel and mid-century domestic suspense, one part Agatha Christie and one part Ethel Lina White.  And aside from the purely entertainment aspect, the novel offers an interesting portrait of unmarried women in an age which still spoke dismissively of "spinsters."  Both Miss Betony herself and her former charge, Grace Aram, as well as other women in the novel, are all of them unattached, from the young to the elderly.

I was compelled to wonder how much of this novel drew on the life of the author.  Dorothy Bowers was herself was the daughter of a man in "trade," confectioner Albert Edward Bowers.  Her mother, Annie Dean, was the daughter of a shoemaker.  Dorothy never married and lived most of her life in the small city of Monmouth, Wales.  Her father was committed to the education of his three daughters (besides Dorothy, these were Gwendoline Lillian and Evelyn May); and he managed to send Dorothy and Evelyn to Oxford.  Both graduated from the Society of Oxford Home-Students (now St. Anne's College), which allowed students to lodge in houses around Oxford rather than in the expensive women's halls.

Dorothy had been educated at the Monmouth High School for Girls and received a scholarship to Oxford.  She sat three times before successfully completing the Latin entrance exam.  She graduated with a third class honours degree in Modern History and worked a series of unsatisfactory temporary jobs as a teacher of history and English.  She composed crossword puzzles, under the pseudonym "Daedalus," for John O'London Weekly.  A 1929 advertisement in T. P.'s Weekly shows "Oxford Honours Graduate" D. V. Bowers offering tutorials in history at moderate terms.  (Did she use initials to cloak the fact that she was a woman?)

Dorothy was afraid of getting trapped in Monmouth, but that seems to have been precisely what happened to her for many years.  In 1939 she was living with her parents at the family home, Westbury House, at the age of thirty-seven, having just published her first and second detective novels, Postscript to Poison (1938) and Shadows Before (1939).  (Her sister Gwendoline had passed away three years early at the age of 39, unmarried, at the family home.)  But her novels, though successfully published in both the US and UK, did not provide her an avenue of escape.

With the commencement of the Second World War, Dorothy did some work in London for the BBC's European News Service.  Her familiarity with early wartime London found its way into her third detective novel, Deed without a Name (1940).  Yet Dorothy was still living at Westbury House the next year, when a pair of young girls from London were evacuated to there.  One of these girls, Rita Doughty, recalled that they stayed there for thirteen months and dubbed their kindly benefactor "Auntie Dorothy."  They had to leave when Dorothy's father became terminally ill, but young Rita was later able to impress some of her friends by getting Auntie Dorothy to sign a copy of one of her detective novels.

Dorothy's father died in 1943, leaving Dorothy his substantial estate of, in modern value, about 358,000 pounds (461,000 dollars).  After the war she settled at Tupsley in Herefordshire, on the Welsh border, but she died a few years later, in 1948, shortly after completing a final detective novel and finally being admitted to the Detection Club.  Her sister Evelyn passed away thirty years later, also unmarried.  In her will Dorothy left her money (in modern value about 133,000 pounds or 171,000 dollars) to a pair of individuals: her sister Evelyn and, most mysteriously, one John Pigott, omnibus conductor.

In Fear and Miss Betony, Bet finds herself thinking affectionately of her self-sacrificing and generous greengrocer father, "who struggled hard to give me a good education--he was never properly alive to the inferiority of women...."  The parallel between Miss Betony and Dorothy is obvious, though Bet would have been born a generation before Dorothy, around 1880.  (Dorothy would have been around the age of Grace Aram.)

Miss Betony's precarious and lonely life in boarding houses is sharply conveyed (with some exquisite turns of phrase), suggesting a personal familiarity on the author's part:

She had lived there four years, in the tall, self effacing house in a back street where the pavements marched sheer with the front doors and coffee colored net screened from the infrequent passer-by the occupations of the grounds floors.  Her sojourn there had been marked by a significant ascent.  Beginning at the first floor with windows commanding the complacent features of the Toplady Museum over the way, she had moved eighteen months later to a small but pleasanter room up the next flight, whence she looked down on five strips of walled garden, a budgerigar house, and the backs of homes that early each week flaunted their laundry like festive bunting.

Climbing had indeed its compensations, for the next move which nine months ago had brought her to the attic floor, with two buckets of sand in grim attendance at the top of the uncarpeted stairs and the homely world of Monday washing and apple trees and cage birds dropping away beneath her, had given her too what none of the other boarders shared, a view of sky and distant hills, and bright gleams of the river slipping smoothly away to the sea that lay somewhere behind them.  Sometimes she fancied she could taste its breath on her lips.  It was a salutary reminder that life had not been spent wholly in Churchway.

Up in her attic room Miss Betony on one occasion reflects that

years ago, in the last war, when emotions ran high and loneliness and doubt and feelings of insecurity could be appeased in all kinds of strange ways, when she had been thirty-six and pretty enough not to hesitate about sending a photograph to someone she had not seen, there had been a club--well, a matrimonial bureau really--and a secretary, and a man....

Had there ever been a man in Dorothy's life?  Just who was John Pigott, omnibus conductor?  One of the things I find most interesting in Fear and in The Bells at Old Bailey, which I will post about next, is the profound sense of isolation.

Ironically, given Miss Betony's sentiments about children, Westbury House, the stately quoined, gabled and bayed Bowers family home in Monmouth, is now a daycare center, Little Einsteins (see above), complete with a discordantly festive magenta door and picket fence.