Reputation for a Song opens with a trial scene in which we hear that Rupert Anderson, a teenager, is standing accused of patricide. The novel then flashes back to show us the events that led up to the death of his father before presenting us with the legal arguments and verdict of the case.
The Anderson household is comprised of Robert and Laura, a couple whose marriage has long since devolved into thinly veiled hostility and contempt, and their three children who have become pawns between them. The eldest daughter favors the father while young Rupert is doted on by his mother.
Rupert has been performing poorly at school and so Robert plans to punish him in the hopes that a little corrective action will push him to take life more seriously. He believes Rupert ought to work toward following in his own footsteps as a lawyer but Rupert and his mother hate this idea, instead pushing for him to take a job working for Laura’s cousin’s brewery. Robert tries to enforce his will but when Laura ignores his dictat that Rupert should be forced to stay home, their marriage hits its breaking point.
While the opening trial scene might leave the possibility open that Rupert may not have been involved in the death of his father, Grierson soon provides us with a clear account of exactly what happened and Rupert’s role in that moment. This places us firmly in inverted mystery territory with the questions being why did Rupert kill his father and will he be held to account for his actions?
The question of motive is an interesting one and I think Grierson does a superb job of rationing out small revelations and hints, engaging the reader in trying to guess where the story is headed. These hints are placed quite fairly and while they are generally psychological in nature, I think it is possible for the reader to be able to use reason and experience to judge what future developments might be in store.
Many of these revelations relate to the interpersonal relationships between the various characters and while I suspect some revelations would have been more shocking to readers in 1952, most of them still have an impact today. Indeed the tone of the book is strikingly modern and candid in places, addressing issues of sexual desire and the sexual power dynamics that existed at that time in surprisingly frank terms. One example of this can be found in the discussion of the appeal of a barmaid and the way she is viewed and interacted with by different members of society. Grierson suggests there is a degree of hypocrisy in high society and that respectability is something of a sham.
Our victim, Robert Anderson, is not a wholly innocent man as he is shown to be controlling, haughty and oblivious in his interactions with his family although Grierson is quite clear that he does not deserve to meet the fate that is meted out to him. His death is quick, violent and shocking and while the descriptions of the violence might seem relatively tame to modern readers, the relationship with his killer and the tragic circumstances of the death make it seem all the more disturbing.
Although Rupert is identified as the killer, the book does challenge the reader to consider whether he is guilty and to what extent justice is functioning correctly as the narrative shifts into the police investigation and trial phases. Some of this relates to his particular circumstances such as his age and obvious lack of maturity while others are more environmental and psychological.
Grierson himself was a lawyer and so it is of little surprise that the courtroom scenes feel well observed both in the details of procedure but also in the thoughtful portrayals of the lawyers, judge and observers. While the courtroom interviews do not reveal any new information in themselves, the examinations of witnesses and points of order do shift the direction of the trial quite dramatically at times and affect the way their statements are interpreted.
The tone and presentation of the legal process can be, at times, quite surprising in its cynicism. We see lies under oath, witnesses being tampered with and a reputation destroyed. You could view these as an exceptional set of circumstances but I wonder if Grierson was pushing at a broader point about the capacity for the British legal system to secure justice when those before it act in bad faith.
Several of the contemporary reviews of the book I have read seem to suggest the book is unpleasant and I suspect the reason lies in some of the darker themes in the book and Grierson’s pessimistic outlook on justice.
Those hints that his would be an unpleasant or seedy read were largely responsible for me putting off reading this until now and led me to expect that this would be a very heavy read. Instead I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the book is frequently extremely funny and well-observed. For instance I enjoyed the description of Robert’s clients as being the sort of people who were most keen to make sure that legal documents looked ‘legal-looking and as full of adjectives and possible’. The darkness in the novel’s themes and plot are certainly present but there are plenty of lighter, more humorous moments too.
While the central focus of the novel is on Rupert’s trial, I did appreciate a few of the subplots that Grierson develops. Chief among these is the discussion of a romance between the Anderson’s eldest daughter and the local vicar and the challenges that get thrown in its way. This is not a tangent or diversion from the main plot, it does feed into things in an interesting and compelling way, but it also offers Grierson some opportunities for some well observed social commentary about relationships and the interest everyone in a village seems to have in their vicar’s choice of partner.
In terms of faults, I can find relatively little. Certainly the tone and themes of the piece won’t be to everyone’s taste but I think they are technically well developed and Grierson is largely successful in the way he raises and discusses issues. Perhaps Robert is a little too sympathetically portrayed, especially given his rather imperious attitude towards his family, though I think it would be hard not to feel he is extremely badly used based on everything we learn.
My biggest complaint would be that I did find the ending a little abrupt. While Grierson does give us some answers, I wished we could have had a little more time following the end of the trial to learn what happened to the various figures we had met. The ending wraps up the themes but arguably doesn’t truly satisfy although I think the author probably achieved the goal he set for himself.
In spite of those few complaints, I found Reputation for a Song to be an entertaining, fast and largely satisfying read. It portions out revelations well, engaging the reader in trying to figure out what will happen next, and though I wanted a little more punch in the ending, I do think it does a fine job of summing up the themes of the piece.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Lawyer/Barrister/Judge (etc) (Who?)
Tom Ruffles writes that while the book is ‘inclined to plod’ the characterization makes up for it.