Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Sheila, Take a (Partial) Bow: Sheila Radley's Death and the Maiden (1978) and The Chief Inspector's Daughter (1981)

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!

15 comments:

  1. Robert Barnard, not Bernard. There was a Robert Bernard who published a couple of thrillers, but he was American.

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    1. Sigh, I spotted some more typos too, have to correct all those today. Its a nearly 2500 word piece.

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    2. There, I did some more proofing lol. I've actually reviewed Robert Barnard rather a lot here, he's an old favorite of mine. And Robert Bernard I seem to recall wrote Deadly Meeting? Another used bookstore find from the 90s I have somewhere. I remember thinking he should have changed his name!

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  2. A delightful post filled with enjoyable info on Radley and her books! "The Persnickity Traditionalist" needs to be the name of Jacques Barzun's website, should his spirit move him into blogging.

    And spot on about Marsh and her, um, problematic homosexual characters and the contempt with which Inspector Alleyn et. al. regard them in her books. Death in Ecstasy was particularly rough going in this regard... Thanks for all of the research and exploration you do with Radley and these lesser known GAD writers! It's appreciated.

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  3. Well, we lost Barzun in 2012, but he was almost 105. He would be 113 today! He was a year younger than John Dickson Carr. (It's amazing to think Carr could still be alive today.) I would have loved to have seen a JB blog though.

    I am going to try to read all the Radley books now, I'm sufficiently interested to do so. But I only had the first four so had to go a-hunting.

    I enjoy Marsh but things about her drive me crazy, like her inability to portray queer characters as anything other than caricatures. Perhaps the suicidal lesbian in Singing in the Shrouds was meant to be sympathetic, but it's just another negative stereotype: the poor, miserable queer.

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  4. Death and the Maiden goes back a lot farther than Matthias Claudius' poem. There are paintings and engravings going back to Durer and Grien - and probably earlier still - in the Renaissance. Both Radley and Mitchell feature death by water as an element in the plot - do others include this?
    In 1978 policewomen were recruited separately from men and carried out completely different duties - as you say, 'particularly "feminine" tasks' - with ni connexion with men's duties. As with treatment and attitudes to gay characters it's astonishing how quickly attitudes and assumptions have changed.

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    1. Tes, the Seventies, when I was a child and young adolescent, seems like "another country" these days. It seems strange that that is so, because the perception at the time was that it was so "swinging," but of course in much of the world it wasn't, actually.

      Yes, I thought all the stuff about policewomen in the earlier of the two books reads like the Fifties. Things start changing in the next book, where the policewoman who I gather becomes Quantrill's love interest gets more to do professionally. This changed so fast too in retrospect, like attitudes to queer characters.

      I was going to include a pic of a Death and the Maiden painting but decided to save for when I write about the QP book. And, yes, water does figure into it.

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    2. I should have mentioned I got a question about the Radley book when talked about Q. Patrick, etc. at the Bodies from the Library conference, which is what provoked me finally to read it. so thank you, whoever asked that question!

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  5. It's an old peeve of mine how women in a profession are constantly specified as female, when hardly anyone would point out the gender of a man in those same professions. (Sayers did in one of her essays, but she was making a point.) You can joke about "mere men" in detective fiction, and I'm not denying that the Crime Queens get maybe too much attention, but how often do you see a reference to, say, John Dickson Carr as that great MALE creator of impossible-crime puzzles, or to Ed McBain as the noted MALE police-procedural author? I think it's related to Dr Johnson's "dancing dog" remark, a put-down about how rare it is for a woman to do certain things, and thus how she's probably not doing them as well as the men. Oh well, at least Barzun didn't call Radley a "lady author"!

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    1. Oh, I totally agree with you, Marty, there's a lot of male sexism, characteristic of his time and social standing, in Barzun's work. In fact his and Wendell Hertig Taylor's A Catalogue of Crime, which deals with so many women crime writers, is riddled with it. He obviously loved Radley's first book, so why effectively qualify his praise for her by limiting her to being one of the great woman masters of the genre? You're right, he never would have called Peter Lovesey, say, one of the great male masters. I think it does reflect an attitude that it's extra amazing when it's a woman who accomplished something that is ostensibly outside the feminine realm. Of course that's sexist hogwash too.

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  6. A Talent for Destruction was the first book I read of Sheila Radley and having read all of them I would call it her strongest. It always feels disappointig if the books of an author you are reading decline in quality instead of ascending. The best should come in the end, not at the beginning. I agree with your thoughts about her books belonging more to the 50s in regard to its social attitudes than to the late 1990s or 2000s. But the development of the work relationship between Quantrill and Tait (and their private connection later on) is I think unique. I never read anything like it in crime fiction again.

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    1. I'm looking forward to reading some more of hers and Talent is next up! Thanks for your comment, Jotell.

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  7. It's interesting that you've never read Radley until this year. I read the first three when they came out. They were part of the Murder Ink paperback s imprint that Dell published in the early 1980s. I had a lot of those books, most of which were new writers...or at least newer than the Golden Age era. The Murder Ink books were how I discovered V. C. Clinton-Baddeley and Mignon Warner. I had just graduated high school, had gone through all of Christie and dozens of Golden Age writers, and was interested in contemporary mystery writers. I was discovering Bill Pronzini, Robert Barnard, P.D. James (whose books were hyped on AM radio all the time!), Ruth Rendell among many others. I remember that Radley was being touted as the next Rendell, perhaps compared to James as well. I also remember that I enjoyed the first book (retitled Death in the Morning in the US editions) enough to read two more, but then gave up on her. If you ask me now what I liked about them I'd be unable to tell you. I recall not a thing about the books. Nothing! But I do remember a lot about the books I read by Rendell, Barnard, James and Pronzini. So maybe she's not much about plot? Usually it's the plots and sometimes characters if they are quirky enough that stand out in my mind over the years.

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    1. I remember the back of one PD James pb in the US was topped with a blurb from Larry King: "A great read!" or something like that. That meant she really made it I guess! I think it was A Taste for Death, which I mostly hated lol. Don't think PD ever actually appeared on Larry's shows though. I remember Murder Ink, I used to buy those editions at used bookstores in the 1990s. Read lots of James, Rendell, Barnard and Lovesey in the 90s, but Radley was someone I always meant to get around to--and didn't.

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  8. Such a good review Curt. I have all the Radley e books..Bello did a mass reissue in 2011 I think . Some of the later ones are really good. The one duff book being ( no 8 I think ) set in different time zones ..it didn't work for me. Perhaps a forerunner to Jo Bannister ...I am sure more knowledgeable readers will help out here.

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