Murder Most Familiar

A review of Murder Most Familiar by Marjorie Bremner – 221208

It is always a pleasure to find an author new to me who has unjustly languished in obscurity and so the enterprising Moonstone Press are to be congratulated for reissuing this wonderful book by Marjorie Bremner. Bremner was born in the States but moved to London in 1946 and spent the rest of her life in Britain. She wrote two crime novels, of which this is the first, originally published in 1953. Her second, Murder Amid Proofs, published two years later, is begging to be reissued. There is also a short story of hers in Murder by the Book, an anthology published as part of the British Library Crime Classics series.

Initially, I was a little uncertain as the set up seemed to trawl through the most familiar of familiar murder mystery tropes. It is set in a country house where the paterfamilias, Sir Hugh Mason, is a successful but ruthless businessman who, despite leaving school and having to work for a living, has created a successful business and riches to set up his extended family comfortably for life. It is the weekend of his sixtieth birthday and at the dinner it is widely anticipated that he will make a major announcement. He has become interested in politics in general and a proto-Fascist group called the Freemen in particular, and the word on the street is that he will pledge a sizeable chunk of his assets to the cause.

Sir Hugh has made an outsider, Tay, his de facto number two in the business, spurning the claims of his relative, Andrew, to the disgust of some of his family. Both are clear that they believe this overt show of support for a Fascist group would damage the business considerably. Both Tay and Andrew have been lobbying the shareholders in the family to gain their support in the event that Sir Hugh leaves the business. Add into the mix a female relative who is desperate for money to pay off a blackmailer and a spot of industrial espionage at the factory and there is a heady mix of anger, frustrated ambitions, political chicanery, and desperation.

It comes as no surprise that Sir Hugh does not quite see in his birthday nor make his big announcement. He is found dead, poisoned, but who did it and why?   

The story is written from the perspective of Christina, Sir Hugh’s niece and private secretary. She is a perceptive observer and through her, Bremner, whose professional career was devoted to psychology and political science, gives the reader a fascinating case study of a family coming apart at the scenes, as the police, through the patient but persistent enquiries of Burgess, increases the pressure on them. The problem with having just one focus for the narrative is that Christina has to be omnipresent, as even Burgess wryly observes at one point.

Nevertheless, Burgess manages to discern that they all have something to hide which might or might not have some bearing on Sir Hugh’s demise and had cause to visit Sir Hugh privately in his room between the end of dinner and his death. This includes Giles who lived in the village and given his political antipathy to Sir Hugh is the prime suspect and Charles, who has turned his back on the family business and works in the Foreign Office, but has suddenly flown back from France feigning that his work there was done, but that was far from the case.

The strengths of this book are the psychological insights of a family that was seething with discontent under the surface and whose schisms come to the surface once Sir Hugh is dead, her pacy, vivacious writing interspersed with no little wit, and her ability to breathe some life into some of the most hackneyed of crime fiction’s tropes. An inadvertent slip of the tongue confirms Burgess’ suspicions as to the identity of the murderer and whilst the ending is a little too twee for my taste, dragging in another trope, some love interest, it is a thoroughly entertaining and engrossing read.

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