At long last, I am ready to share with all of you the first of the FIVE practically nonexistent titles from my new Hopeless Wish List that Grant Hurlock very generously shared with me just before we jetted off to Italy. No doubt many of you have been losing sleep anticipating this revelation...
Ruth Adam has long been an author I've meant to explore more fully, after loving both her quite serious and politically engaged early novel I'm Not Complaining (1938), about a schoolteacher swept up in the political turmoil of the Depression years, and her late, still politically engaged but also hilarious, semi-autobiographical novel A House in the Country (1957), which I reviewed ages ago and raved about.
But it certainly looked as though her one murder mystery, tantalizingly set during the Blitz, was a hopeless wish list item if ever there was one. It seemed to exist only in the British Library. So imagine how happy I was when Grant emailed me and casually mentioned that he would share his copy with me (in addition to the the other four novels that had seemed almost as hopeless, of course). It was a bit like an ornithologist out for a casual stroll coming into a clearing and finding a small flock of whooping cranes. I know I'm a geek of the highest order, but that might have been the most excited I've been about anything this year (it would certainly be given a run for its money by our travels in Italy, and perhaps by having landed a new job, but I'm not absolutely certain which would win...).
Murder in the Home Guard is set in the little town of Longmarket, located in the countryside but crucially not far from an airfield. The novel opens with the town experiencing its first real bombing raid—more or less an accident, as an ineffectual German pilot mistakes the town for the airfield. As the town catches its breath the next morning, the residents discover the body of a young Home Guardsman, Philip Spencer, the troubled young son of the town grocer, who has been shot through the temple. It emerges from his final report that he had spotted flashes of light which appeared to be signalling to the German bomber, and which perhaps brought on the erroneous bombing.
Certainly an intriguing enough situation, no?
But I have to note right off the bat that if you're looking for an enthralling mystery with a brilliant, unexpected solution, you might be barking up the wrong tree to choose Adam's one experiment in the genre. Her experiment features an unusual structure: once the stage has been set with the bombing and the discovery of Philip's body, Adam follows up with three long flashbacks, each focused on a different character who has featured in the Chief Constable's initial investigation. The Chief Constable's musings on the case set the stage for the flashbacks, and they're too irresistible not to share:
The Chief Constable sat in his office and drew on the blotting-paper. He pictured Longmarket as a town of ants under a huge stone, with each little ant scuttling about its important business, heedless of the fact that the stone had been lifted off, and that a gigantic human monster hovered over it, ready to crush it to pieces. Last night the German war machine had hovered for a moment over its thousand homes, but the little ants below had gone on blissfully running about on the adventures of their own little lives just the same. He wrote on the blotting-paper:
"Sally was in love."
"Philip Spencer wanted to be a poet."
"Betty was homesick."
He stared at them and scribbled them out. He sighed to himself, and murmured Mr. Maxwell's comment:
"The facts look quite different when you know the whole story."
The three flashbacks focus on Sally, a young nurse who idealizes her profession and fancies herself a feminist and a selfless heroine (but who turns out to be a pushover for a young soldier); Philip, the victim of the crime, the son of the local grocer, who has had an affair with a middle-aged male poet but may now be questioning his sexuality again (and Adam's portrayal of both the affair and the questioning is quite sensitive and complex for its time); and Betty, a sassy young evacuee who has been bounced from billet to billet because she is a bit of a problem child.
The flashbacks include considerable digressions from the background of the murder—Adam is far too fascinated with character to merely sketch out the evidence and the pieces of the puzzle—and the digressions perhaps either lift the novel beyond the usual level of mystery writing into the realm of literature, or, depending on your perspective, render it merely a failed thriller. (I think I might fall somewhere in between.) I enjoyed them a lot, because Adam is always breathtaking at making the reader feel and understand her characters, but I confess I did also feel by the end that the plot was flying off the rails.
However, to be fair, Adam herself started off this book with a wonderful "Apology," explaining the genesis of the novel and the conditions in which it was written, which were challenging to say the least:
I am sorry about this.
Almost every night, during the time I was trying to write this book, there used to be a German plane wandering about the sky. I got to think of it as being always the same German plane, with the same German pilot.
Adam nicknames the pilot Hans, and she has considerable fun at his expense:
Hans never seemed to do much good (good from his point of view, of course). He seemed an indecisive Hamlet of a man, given to chugging endlessly round the same few square miles, trying to make up his mind about murder.
Sometimes he dropped bombs. There was a golf-course near by which seemed to have a fascination for him. Once he put five in a row in the fields in front of our house. But it never got to be a habit.
This Apology alone is almost worth tracking down the novel for. It provides a humorous and entertaining glimpse of what life was like for a novelist trying to be creative in the midst of chaos and destruction.
I have to share a couple of examples of Adam's brilliance in sketching out her characters and capturing the humor of even the darkest situations. There's Mr. Maxwell, for example, for whom the unexpected bombing in the town arouses fantasies of casual heroics:
It was as though the casement window of his tidy little house opened on perilous seas, when he only had to walk out of his front gate and wait for his parachutist to land nearby and then be home again in time for breakfast. For a moment he fell into his dream and reflected as to whether it would be desirable to have him land actually in the garden. He pictured himself showing friends who came to dinner, in festive post-war days, the exact spot. One might even have a stone put up, with a tablet about it. Or perhaps it would be better to refer to it with studied carelessness. "That rambler's never been the same since that Nazi dragged his parachute across it simply ruined the roots."
There's Mrs. Dimond, an evacuated mother-to-be who hasn't quite settled in to country life:
She stood at the door watching them go down the garden path under the arches of roses. The sweet scent drifted up to her on the summer breeze. She sniffed it, dreaming of the Caledonian Market on a Friday afternoon, when you could buy a bunch of glowing red for a song. and take it home triumphantly and say, as you put it in an empty jam-jar, "Smells like the country, don't it?" But that didn't mean you wanted to go to the country, any more than when you talked about heaven you would go and put your head in the gas-oven.
And finally, Adam is always concerned with children, and is savvy and convincing in her portrayals of child psychology. She has a field day with Betty, who cheerfully goes from billet to billet, always rejected—for nits in her hair, for an eagerness to discuss the facts of life with her hosts' other children, or for sundry other reasons. Clearly, she has a strong sense of self and isn't overly concerned about the negative reactions of others:
Betty was not in the least like the child of the psycho-analyst's textbooks who suffers agonies from the suspicion that her parents do not really want her. She had no need to suspect it. She knew. She was told so half a dozen times every day, and throve on it. She knew that she was a bother. She knew that she kept her Mam away from the pictures and the pub and wore her out, body and soul. But it didn't trouble her. What was the use of worrying about the soul-searchings of Mam and Dad and their emotional attitude towards her? They were there. They would protect her, feed her, care for her, provide a roof over her head. She would just as soon have started speculating about whether the teacher at school wanted to teach her, whether the bus-driver wanted to drive her to the Clinic, whether the sun wanted to rise each morning and warm her.
So, would I recommend Murder in the Home Guard as a mystery? Well, no. Apart from its other weak points, plot-wise, part of the solution to the murder here involves a considerable bit of propaganda, and characters behaving in a way that—although there is a kind of stark logic to it—is so idealized that it's completely impossible to believe. No author writing in peacetime would have been likely to try to convince their readers that such behavior could happen, but Adam, her head in the heady clouds of noble, stiff-upper-lip, Britain-can-take-it morale-building, dives wholeheartedly into it.
But as a wonderfully entertaining, smart, funny novel of wartime life, I could hardly recommend Murder in the Home Guard highly enough. If it isn't Adam's best or most cohesive work, or a particularly effective murder mystery, it still has many high points, and I'm still thrilled to have had the chance to read it. Thanks again to Grant for the opportunity. And more revelations soon about the other four books he shared with me...