While I like to read inverted mysteries, it has been a while since I last came across one in its pure form. No tricks, no secret identities or revelations – just the story of how someone makes the choice to become a killer and how things unfold after the deed is done.
Disposing of Henry is credited to Roger Bax, a pseudonym used by Paul Winterton who also wrote as Andrew Garve and Paul Somers. This is the first time I’ve encountered him under any of those names though given he wrote at least a couple of other inverted stories I doubt it will be the last.
The story begins with a nineteen year old girl named Daisy running away from the slum in which she lives with her parents to start a new life in the city as a typist. For a while she is quite happy but when her boss makes the suggestion that she should set her sights higher and become a mannequin for a department store (in the sense of modelling clothes for customers) she takes him up on the suggestion.
She creates a new persona for her job and begins dating. For a while this makes her happy though she wishes she could afford all the lovely clothes that she gets to wear at work but when she meets a married man who offers to set her up as his mistress in a flat she jumps at the idea. This will be the first step in a Becky Sharp-style rise to riches that will culminate in her marrying a rather mild-mannered man named Henry who will be the subject of a murder plot between her and a man she takes as her lover.
Typically an inverted story follows a certain form in which you are encouraged to feel at least a little sympathy for the killer or, alternatively, dislike of the victim. This novel does not attempt to do either of those things.
Daisy or, to use her assumed name, Denise is an unpleasant character. She may begin life as a victim of her father’s abuse but she is thoroughly material and calculating. I compared her to Becky Sharp from the novel Vanity Fair earlier but while the reader may take some enjoyment in that novel in her manipulating some rather unpleasant men, here that feeling quickly fades.
I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that her actions go much further, even if she plays a more passive role in the plot. The second is that her victim does not deserve his fate. Henry is a rather dotty but ultimately quite charming man who does absolutely nothing wrong beyond being flattered by an attractive younger woman’s attention to him. The reader will take no pleasure in seeing him killed and will likely hope that the police make his killers pay.
The third party in the triangle and the instigator of the affair is an injured air pilot who ‘Denise’ tends to in the hospital during the war. He is completely unsympathetic from the outset and has one of the least convincing flirtation techniques in fiction, telling her that if he has to spend much more time convalescing he will likely ‘rape [her] in the ward’.
Suffice it to say that I am not wholly convinced by that relationship though I do see that it is a physical attraction rather than any great meeting of the spirits. The novel is pretty frank about addressing their relationship (as it was with her first affair and its consequences) in a way that surprised me for a book written in 1947 and I do think the reader is supposed to see that her perceptions of his feelings and the actuality of their relationship are quite different.
The crime itself however is striking and, to my mind, the strongest reason to read the book. The murder takes place on Dartmoor and makes full use of the region’s rugged geography and hazardous terrain to chilling effect. As it happens I finished reading this section of the book just as Margot posted about the various ways in which Dartmoor has featured in crime novels and I do think that this is a particularly successful rendering of that landscape.
As is typical of the inverted form, there will be mistakes made in the planning and execution of the plan that the reader will spot long before the protagonists. The game for the reader is to figure out how the forces of law and order will be able to piece together what happened to catch them.
One of the most compelling sections of the story however comes after the murder as Denise tries to help cover up the crime. There is a sequence that is really quite chilling, verging on the horrific, as she has to interact with her husband’s body to cover up one of the mistakes that they have made. The author handles this sequence masterfully, building suspense and concentrating on the psychological impact it has on her rather than going into too much detail about what she is seeing.
If the whole novel were written in such a way I would have little hesitation in giving it a strong recommendation but there is little restraint shown in the rest of the novel. ‘Denise’ may be an unpleasant character but it is hard to continually read the male characters (with the exception of the lovely Henry) refer to her as a ‘bitch’ or a ‘slut’, particularly in the latter stages of the novel. While I think that is meant to say as much about them as it does about her, the double standard between her morality and that of her first lover is never quite driven home as powerfully as it could be.
Another issue that the reader may find with the book is that it highlights the elements that will prove to be Daisy’s downfall a little too clearly, making it easy to predict how the detectives will piece everything together. This is a shame because some of the ideas used are quite clever and might have been quite surprising if presented more subtly.
On a happier note, the novel does end with a strong and punchy conclusion. One image felt particularly effective and struck an interesting note that I haven’t really seen in an inverted story before.
That moment, coupled with the compelling murder and cover-up sequences earlier in the novel, almost make this book worthy of a recommendation but the problem is that the book feels too unpleasant to enjoy while the killers are simply not terribly interesting psychologically. If you are going to have a unlikeable and unsympathetic protagonist then you must have even more unpleasant victims. The problem is that you won’t want to dispose of a gentle soul like Henry and so you find yourself being told to cheer for the establishment forces that created Daisy in the first place. And that just isn’t satisfying either emotionally or dramatically.