The 1970s were a transition period in classic crime fiction, with the Golden Age generation of mystery writers dying off by the year seemingly, yet with no new constellation of replacements firmly affixed in the sky, no new pantheon unshakably established on the bloodstained heights of the criminal Mount Olympus. By the end of the 1980s all the Golden Agers had breathed their last, as far as I'm aware, and a consensus had arisen that there were two new British "Crime Queens," roughly comparable to Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, these being Ruth Rendell and PD James; and that there were other notable figures, mere men these, like Peter Lovesey, Robert Barnard and Reginald Hill. Then there were additional individuals who arose for a time, getting acclaim as new PD Jameses and Ruth Rendells, if they were women, but then somewhat faded over the long haul.
One of these women crime writers was Sheila Radley, who for a few years looked like a real up and comer, heralded not only by newspaper reviewers but by persnickety traditionalist Jacques Barzun. Radley published nine Inspector Douglas Quantrill detective novels between 1978 and 1994, six of them in the Eighties, when her reputation stood highest. Her last Inspector Quantrill mystery was not even published in the U. S. however, despite the fact that almost all of her earlier novels not only had been published there but reprinted in paperback as well.
Four of Radley's novels are currently in print with Felony & Mayhem, yet I had to look long and hard to find much at all about about the author on the internet, including the not incidental fact that she passed away in 2017, at the age of of 88. Even Felony & Mayhem's webpage on Radley does not have this highly pertinent information! Nor did I find any obituary on the author, who seems to have been rather publicity shy.
From literary agency Curtis, Brown, however, we find that Radley's real name was Sheila Mary Robinson and that she also wrote a trio of romantic novels (before she commenced writing mysteries) under the name Hester Rowan. Born in 1928, she served in the Women's Royal Air Force from 1951 to to 1960 before "settling down" in a Norfolk village as a storeowner and assistant postmistress. The Pan Macmillan South Africa webpage on Radley provides some additional detail:
Sheila Radley is the pseudonym of Sheila Robinson, who was born and brought up in rural Northamptonshire, one of the fortunate means-tested generation whose further education was free. She went from her village school via high school to London University, where she read history. She served for nine years as an education officer in the Women's Royal Air Force, then worked variously as a teacher, a clerk in a shoe factory, a civil servant and in advertising. In the 1960s she opted out of conventional work and joined her partner in running a Norfolk village store and post office, where she began writing fiction in her spare time.
I found that the the Northamptonshire village where Radley was born and grew up in the Thirties and Forties was Cogenhoe (population about 1500 today), where her father, Wallace Robinson, was a postman. Through her father and her mother, Mabel, who died when Radley was twenty, Radley was descended from generations of agricultural laborers and, on the female side, lace makers, including her maternal great-grandmother, the memorably named Comfort Dawkes Labrum (?) (1834-1911). (For more on the interesting subject of Northamptonshire lace making, see here.) Radley apparently never married (I'm guessing her Sixties partner was a woman), but her only sibling, an elder sister, did, after the war, in 1946. You can certainly see how Radley's personal background comes out in her writing.
From Felony & Mayhem we learn that Radley in her words thought "the really interesting thing" in mysteries was "not whodunit, but why," which is fine, but it certainly is not the ethos of Jacques Barzun, who put detection of the culprit above all else in a mystery. Yet Barzun highly praised several of Radley's detective novels, particularly her first, about which he wrote:
Here is a new voice, unmistakable, and if she keeps up the good work, she can quickly take her place among the great women masters of the genre [Query: Why not just "the masters"?--TPT]. She rivals P. D. James for combined strength and delicacy of touch, and she is as adept as Sayers or Marsh in constructing and conducting a plot. Humor of the best English kind, that is, arising from social perception, is present throughout, and altogether the books is a delight. [The motive is peculiar but] it is by no means outré or incredible--and the romance is very fine.
Wow! Most authors would kill, so to speak, for that king of praise. JB also liked her second and fourth detective novels, although he criticized her third for having unpardonably diffused interest between detection and character study--"this is hardly a detective story," he complains--and he hated her sixth. All in all, however, a pretty good track record with JB for a modern mystery writer.
I bought Radley's first two detective novels back in the 1990s in pb at a used bookstore, but only recently got around to reading them--a lag of over two decades! I think that, applying Barzun's own standard of detection above all else, he was a bit generous to Radley. Applying my own more hybrid standard, however, I think her first novel is quite good, and the second not so much.
Death and the Maiden is one of several mysteries, the first of which I believe is Q. Patrick's Death and the Maiden (1939), which use that title, made famous by the 1824 Franz Schubert string quartet of the same title, which in turn drew on Schubert's own 1817 lied of the same title, which had been inspired by Matthias Claudius' poem of the same title. The image of death coming for the beautiful young maiden is a very powerful one. Gladys Mitchell also used the title for a 1947 detective novel.
|humpbacked bridge at Cogenhoe|
In Radley's take on the theme, Mary Gedge, a promising young middle class village girl, Cambridge bound, is discovered dead below a humpbacked bridge, drowned in a stream, Ophelia-like, with wildflowers strewn around her. Suspects are found among her family and friends, as well as the teachers at her school. Investigating the case are Chief Inspector Douglas Quantrill and his new smart, young, cocky and conceited sergeant--he's been college educated, don't you know--Martin Tait. (By the by, have you ever noticed how often the name "Martin" occurs in English mysteries--so much more so than in American ones.)
Perhaps what struck me most of all about Radley's Death and the Maiden is how old-fashioned it seems here in 2021, over four decades after its publication, despite the fact that it's technically a "modern" mystery. Yet, after all temporally 1978 was much closer to 1958 than it is today, and it rather shows, despite being published in the "Swinging Seventies." It's a reminder that despite the much heralded changes that were impacting modern society, things moved much more slowly in many parts of the world.
Women in the police force are almost a non-factor, being "policewomen" who are called in to do particularly "feminine" tasks, like breaking bad news of loved ones' deaths to relatives and figuring out what to do with squalling children. Wives are mostly strictly homemakers, career women are mostly single. Everyone is white and, seemingly, straight.
Douglas Quantrill and his handsome, college educated sergeant replicate police pairings that were novel in the 1930s, when John Rhode and Freeman Crofts started them, but already routine by the 1950s. Which isn't to say that Radley doesn't limn the pair nicely. Both men are immediately memorable--Quantrill with a bit of a chip on his shoulder about his lack of education, Martin very much the ambitious young upstart. Admittedly, one of the memorable qualities about Quantrill, whose boredom and unhappiness with his home life--particularly his wife, whom he married young--has itself become a cliché today: the glum police inspector dissatisfied with his personal life. But it was a lot fresher back in 1978, when there weren't necessarily Dalglieshes by the dozen.
|yes, he did|
Early in the novel there's an amusing scene with Sergeant Tait and bucolic Constable Godbold, who started his professional life as a village bobby riding a bicycle, but now complains that he covers the district in a police van and consequently knows the local people far less well. When Tait hears this his response is one of utter bemusement:
He turned in his seat and looked at Godbold with interest, as though the constable were the sole survivor of a dead civilization. "Did you really ride round on a bicycle?" he asked.
I liked Godbold. I was half hoping he would come upon a crime scene demanding, "Now then, what's all this?" But, alas, no.
Death and the Maiden is set in the Breckland country of Suffolk (not far from Christopher Bush Norfolk country), around the communities of Ashthorpe and Breckham Market. The various locales, especially the buildings, are minutely described, providing a real sense of rural place which reminded my of the later novels of John Rhode/Miles Burton. While the point-of-view remains firmly that of the investigating men, Quantrill and Tait, there is one superbly rendered woman character in the form of middle-aged school administrator Jean Bloomfield. I couldn't help suspecting there were some strong autobiographical elements in this character from Radley herself, who was fifty years old when her first detective novel was published. (Read the book for yourself, if you haven't, and see what you think.)
|For Father's Day: Women with Daddy Issues!|
Radley gives this character real nuance, though she is much more heavy-handed with the lamentable, lower-class Pulfers, mother and daughter, who in the novel Gone with the Wind would have been called "po' white trash." It seems the lushly sluttish Pulfer daughter, Julie, inveigled Derek Gedge, Mary's brother, into marriage by claiming (falsely) that he was the father of her child. In the chapter in which she appears we are damningly told that trampy Julie is clearly not wearing a bra--oh, mercy, get me my fainting couch--and she thumbs through no less than three trashy magazines like True Confessions.
Because of the Pulfers, Derek has been forced to give up his own shot at Cambridge and work at a chicken processing plant, which Radley describes a mite too graphically for my taste. (In short, blech!) Actually, I could never understand why Derek, a grocer's son, had to work in a chicken processing plant in the first place, even if he was dumb enough to give up attending Cambridge; but I have to guess that Radley was vegan.
Where I'm surprised Barzun valued this novel so highly is that it's the very strength of the detective story as a novel that somewhat mars it as a puzzle. There are some good physical clues, but it's the psychological clues that made me virtually certain who the murderer was pretty early in the story. This is the kind of thing detection purists of the Golden Age like S. S. Van Dine used to warn about in their rules for the form. The moving ending is so psychologically apposite that no other finish would have worked artistically, which is great in a novel, but not necessarily so in a Golden Age style mystery, where death is a contest of wits between the reader and the author, or so the theory goes.
This aside, however, I liked Death and the Maiden much better than The Chief Inspector's Daughter, which appeared after a lag of three years. Here's there's a more ostensibly sophisticated milieu, the story being about the murder of a woman romance novelist. (Quantrill's younger daughter Allison is the murder victim's secretary and finds her body.) But all the stuff about "women's lib" seemed dated in a bad way and the big surprise, which wasn't as original in 1981 as the author seemed to think (and certainly isn't today), I could see coming a mile off. In fact, 60% of the way through the book I turned to the end to see if I was right and I was. Here I didn't find that the characters offered adequate compensation for the predictable plot, the literary stuff falling surprisingly flat, aside from the depiction of a washed-up, middle-aged "Angry Young Man" playwright who lives with his mother, which I found quite interesting.
How conservative was Radley, anyway, I wonder? In the book there is a "hippie-type" character who smokes pot and everyone in the police refers to him highly condemnatorily as a "druggie," which seemed a bit hysterical to me--and in 1981 I was living in Alabama, where we had more pot smokers than hippies, actually. Heck, in the 1978 film Foul Play, the hip police detective played by Chevy Chase smoked pot. Of course this was in San Francisco.
Also the way Quantrill and Tait treat the gay antiques dealer (go figure) is really repulsive, like something out of Ngaio Marsh, c. 1936. Actually on this one Tait, who generally seems meant to be the less sympathetic character of the two, is slightly more sympathetic than Quantrill, who thinks with "distaste," as he observes the antique dealer talking with his obvious boyfriend, that "he knew a couple of queers when he saw them." Oh, you're ever so keen, aren't you, Dougie, my dear boy!
Of course one could argue that Radley--who I have a notion may have been a lesbian herself, though the same has been suggested of Ngaio Marsh, who never once in her long writing life, in my recollection, portrayed a queer person remotely positively--was simply showing up rural English police for what they were. Still, many of her contemporaries managed more nuanced treatments than this. And it's a problem when it's the identifying sleuth who thinks this way, or at least I find it so. Maybe Quantrill improves over the series. I hate to imagine what his reaction might have been after he perceptively "spotted" the sexuality of antiques dealer Ian Towning! (See YouTube clip below.)
Anyway, I'm encouraged enough to stick with the series. I'm intrigued by the third one, A Talent for Destruction (1982), which sounds like a (much shorter) Barbara Vine novel and greatly disappointed Jacques Barzun. I've come to think that's not necessarily a bad thing!