Originally published in 1942
The Hardstaffe family are not the nicest people in the world. In fact, he – schoolteacher, lothario and bully, she – chronic malcontent – and their horsey unmarried adult daughter seem to be prime candidates for murder. A writer planning these deaths, on paper at least, and a young girl, chased by old Hardstaffe, are the only outsiders in a deliciously neat, but nasty, case.
Blue Murder was the last of Harriet Rutland’s mystery novels, first published in 1942. This new edition, the first in over 70 years, features an introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.
That settles it, thought Smith savagely. He shall be murdered, even if I have to do it myself!
Author Arnold Smith arrives in the village of Nether Naughton in search of inspiration for his latest work, a detective story. He has arranged to take a room in the home of the Hardstaffe family and soon discovers plenty of inspiration within those walls, eventually basing characters within his manuscript on them.
Mr. Hardstaffe, the elderly Headmaster of the school, has a vicious temper and a roving eye that has landed on Miss Charity Fuller, the ‘youngest and prettiest of his staff’. He has apparently pressed his attentions on her for some time but she has rebuffed him with the dangerous statement that she cannot consider him ‘as long as she is alive’. The she is his wife, a hypochondriac who he married purely for her wealth. She has her own reasons for hating her husband who bullies and belittles her.
It is clear from the very start of the book that there are murderous tensions present within the house but one of the most appealing aspects of this novel for me was that the reader will not know which character will be the victim. Rutland is even able to extend this beyond the point at which the murder takes place, at least for a few tension-building pages, as we learn that a murder has taken place and is being investigated but we are not sure exactly who died.
That is one example of a technique Rutland uses throughout the novel of encouraging the reader to expect a development without being clear exactly what that development will be. Take for instance the opening line of chapter thirty-three in which a character ponders with hindsight whether the solution to the murder would have ever been discovered were it not for an event that we are about to read about. This is a variation of the Had I But Known device which plants a seed in the mind of the reader, emphasizing to them that you really want to be paying attention to what will be about to happen. And it works – I was absolutely gripped by the events that followed, knowing that they would be significant but not sure exactly why.
One of the most striking aspects of the novel for me was how much Rutland is willing to give to the reader right from the start. Typically in a detective novel we would expect that we would discover much of the crucial information about the suspects following a murder taking place. Here however we begin the story with a pretty full knowledge of the state of the various relationships between the different characters and the things that they desire that they may want to kill for. In fact within the first few chapters nearly every major character has appeared and expressed some compelling motive for murder.
Which brings us back to the idea that Rutland structures her story really well. She establishes the tensions, creates a situation and then we see what will happen and how those characters will respond. The result is a book that marries elements of the detective story and the crime story very effectively. Our focus is not really on the details of where characters were – almost anyone could have done it – but rather on evaluating the characters psychologically and deciding whether we think they really would have done it. A question that becomes all the more interesting as we see how the characters respond to the questioning and new developments. It also may prompt the reader to wonder what will they do next.
While the plotting may be less of a focus than the characterizations and development of themes it does not mean that it lacks points of interest. There are a number of revelations, both big and small, that may surprise readers and change the direction of the story. I particularly appreciated a moment during the inquest, for example, which I did not see coming and which altered my understanding of what happened, taking the story in an interesting new direction.
Now at this point I should acknowledge that while this book is not inverted, I doubt that the identity of the killer will come as a surprise to many of the readers. Rutland never confirms that person’s role until the final few pages of the novel but I think there are enough structural and thematic clues laid that many readers will anticipate that reveal long before it happens. Often that can be disappointing – a strange feature of the detective story is that while many of us read them to match our wits with the author, few of us want to identify the criminal early. Here however an early identification of the killer is not a fault but a feature because it only increases that sense of tension as we are led to wonder how this story might possibly be resolved.
One of the reasons for this is that Rutland’s story touches on some really dark and realistic subject matter and so a happy ending is far from a certainty. Blue Murder was a novel written during wartime and apparently, according to Curtis Evans’ superb introduction, at a period of personal difficulty for the author. Little surprise then that this book incorporates some really powerful and difficult themes and elements including domestic abuse and the depiction and discussion of antisemitism.
Rutland writes powerfully and effectively on these and many other serious themes, depicting them (and other typically taboo topics for the period such as sexual desire and activity) with a surprising level of frankness for a book published in 1942. This is particularly true of the book’s depiction of antisemitism which we observe in many of the characters. The passages in which Rutland has Leida, a refugee and the target of those comments, responds and explains her experiences are highly effective, communicating the nature of the horror that the character had experienced.
As you might expect from the above, readers should be prepared to not like any of the characters much as people. I think that they are interesting and well-observed but all have significant flaws that render them far from likable. Once again, for me this is a feature rather than a flaw in the novel but if you are a reader who will want someone to root for then this book probably isn’t for you.
As the book nears its conclusion Rutland gives us several moments that I found to be really quite chilling. There are some great ideas here, some of which seem to anticipate the development of the crime novel that would happen throughout the following decade. It leads to a memorable and striking conclusion that, while a little rushed, neatly pulled together many of the themes and ideas that had been developed throughout the book.
Blue Murder will not be for everyone as I can see how some readers might struggle to appreciate its difficult characters and dark worldview. Taken as a book that seems to be a bridge between the detective and crime novel styles, I found it to be masterful and suspect that it will stay with me for quite a while.
The Verdict: Blue Murder is a clever and well-told story that bridges the gap between the detective and the crime novel.
JJ @ The Invisible Event penned an enthusiastic review late last year that I clearly missed (otherwise I would doubtless have got to this much sooner as reading the post makes it clear that this is exactly my type of book). He addresses the acidic wit of the novel which I completely agree with – it is often very well deployed and while I agree not all of it lands as strongly as it might, it is often incredibly sharp and based on clever observation.
Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime suggests that the book has an Ilesian flavor which I think is a fair comparison and shares some interesting observations about its discussions of antisemitism, gender and changing societal values.
Brad @ AhSweetMystery offers up a thoughtful analysis of the book, including reflections on how it compares to Christie’s The Blue Train which was written at a similarly difficult period in an author’s life, and finishes with a sentiment I share that it’s a shame that there was no subsequent novel published.