Blue Murder

A review of Blue Murder by Harriet Rutland

“It is better to burn out than to fade away”, sang Neil Young, or at least you should leave your audience wanting more. This sums up Olive Shimwell’s brief career as a crime novelist to a tee, her third and last novel being this astonishingly delicious dark, brooding, psychological drama, originally published under her nom de plume of Harriet Rutland in 1942 and reissued by Dean Street Press.

Although it contains a high body count, three people are murdered, and there is a police investigation, conducted primarily by Driver and Lovely, the latter there to set up some disarmingly comedic interchanges, Blue Murder is unconventional in its structure and format. It is set during the Second World War when evacuees are placed in seemingly safe havens such as Never Naughton. Arnold Smith, a novelist down on his luck and keen to turn his hand to crime fiction, like any other Tom, Dick and Harriet as Rutland self-deprecatingly declares in Chapter 35, has answered an advertisement to seek paying refuge in the home of the local headmaster, Hardstaffe.

He is not the only refugee. One of the servants is an Austrian Jewess, Frieda Braun, who has moved from the frying pan of the German concentration camps to the fire of the Hardstaffe establishment. She is treated abominably, especially by Hardstaffe’s daughter, Leda, whose anti-semitism is expressed loudly and frequently. Rutland is sympathetic to Braun’s plight, taking time to explain her experiences and the horrors that she has escaped from, a move that makes Leda’s behaviour even more loathsome. To complete the trio of Hardstaffes in residence is Mrs Hardstaffe, a hypochondriac who is brow-beaten by her husband but is alive to his womanising, especially his affair with his latest floozy, schoolteacher Charity Fuller.

There is an air of anarchy to the household, contributed to by a pack of unruly and barely house-trained Sealyhams, and it is a place simmering with hatred, each of the principal characters expressing thoughts of murder before the book has barely begun. Of course, there are murders. First to go is Mrs Hardstaffe who seems to have been poisoned with a dose of morphia. She was convinced that her sleeping tablets contained morphia, although at the inquest her physician, Dr Macalistair, reveals that they were merely placebos. Braun, though, did have morphia, her last form of defence if she were captured by the Germans.

Then Mr Hardstaffe is murdered, shortly after an assignation with Charity Fuller when she rejected his advances and declared she could kill him. Were the two murders related and was it significant that they both occurred after Fuller had visited the house. Hardstaffe, modelled on Whackford Squeers, was a despicable man, and there were others who would have cheerfully murdered him, not least the father of the son he had brutally chastised, and Stanton, Hardstaffe’s estranged son, who was lurking near the house around the time of both murders.

Police investigations come to naught despite a confession which, surprisingly, is marked down as the result of hysterics, and they have disappeared from the scene by the time of the mystery’s resolution. Although the identification of the culprit comes as little surprise, it delivers a third murder and the pendulous question of whether the culprit ever paid for their crimes.

What intrigued me about the book was Rutland’s willingness to move away from the cosiness of the traditional crime novel and explore the darker side of life, domestic abuse, anti-semitism, sexual desire and illicit relationships. According to the excellent introduction, she was going through a dark period in her own personal life and it was written at the height of the war when the outcome was far from clear.

She has produced a powerful study of a household where violent emotions reigned supreme. That it led to murder comes as no surprise at all. When I had finished this wonderful book, I realised what a truly great loss to fans of crime fiction Rutland’s decision not to write anymore was. Perhaps she was tired of being another Tom, Dick or Harriet.

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