Thursday, December 11, 2014

JOAN COGGIN, Who Killed the Curate? (1944)

"Dear, dear, dear," said Lupin, "how very unfortunate. Wouldn't you like something to drink?"

"No, thank you, I have never had anything to drink in my life."

"How thirsty you must get," replied Lupin absentmindedly.

Your feelings about Joan Coggin's first mystery novel might well depend on your reaction to exchanges like the preceding one.  If you—like me—find such utterly daft, purely silly humor to be high-octane brain candy, then Who Killed the Curate? will be a "must read" for you.  This was one of those books where Andy kept rolling his eyes or looking at me like I had just been dropped into our apartment from an alien spacecraft, as I kept giggling uncontrollably or accidentally snorting while trying to suppress my giggles.  But I can easily imagine that there are readers for whom the silliness might be just a bit too much. 


Lady Lupin is the newlywed wife of the local village vicar—of whom one character says "Of course, she is quite bats, but she is very ornamental, and kind, too, I should think"—and is, in a manner of speaking, the "detective" of Coggin's novel, though it must be admitted that most of her detecting is quite inadvertent, or else based on the most scatter-brained logic imaginable.  She wastes little time exercising the "little grey cells," which is perhaps just as well, since she seems to have few enough of them to put through the paces.  The Rue Morgue Press introduction compares her with Gracie Allen, the American comedienne whose trademark signoff on her popular series with George Burns was to reply to Burns' "Say goodnight, Gracie" with the dim-wittedly literal "Goodnight, Gracie."  Personally, I preferred to imagine the delightful Carole Lombard at her most bewildered, but regardless of the mental picture you form of Lady Lupin, Miss Marple or Dame Beatrice she certainly is not.

The novel begins with Lady Lupin's first meeting with her future husband, as she dreads being placed next to a clergyman at a dinner party.  By the end of the chapter, she is married to said clergyman and settled into the vicarage.  We meet an array of village characters, all of whom immediately attempt to lure Lupin into their own interests and organizations.  There’s the Mother’s Union, the Girl Guides, and the Temperance Society, not to mention various villagers who are determined to have her advice or support for their own personal agendas.  Among them is Diana Lloyd, who is surely a thinly-veiled self-portrait of Coggin herself, also an author of girls' stories who turned to mystery writing:

She would like to have written other things and had had one novel published but it had not been a success financially and as she needed the money she felt obliged to stick to the children's stories, for which she had a gift. However, she had lately determined to have one more attempt at something different and had actually started a detective story.

When the unpopular, blackmailing curate gets himself murdered, things all get a bit (hilariously) overwhelming for poor out-of-her-depth Lady Lupin:

"Who was in your sitting room during that interval? Say four-thirty on Tuesday, and ten or eleven yesterday morning?"

"If you had ever lived in a vicarage you wouldn't ask questions like that; people just walk in and out all day long. When Andrew asked me to marry him, he said he was afraid I should find it very quiet here, and what he meant I can't imagine! If I wanted quiet I'd rather retire to the Tower of Babel with a saxophone."

The mystery is played entirely and deliriously for laughs, so if you like any sort of dignity or decorum around your murder investigations, you’ll have to look elsewhere.  Even the deductions about the crime itself are often the result of the zaniest of logic:

“I'm sure you're wrong about Phylis Gardner. Even if she so far forgot herself as to commit a murder, she would never have walked through the streets carrying a parcel wrapped up in a newspaper. She has the highest standards."

But I really had such a wonderful time with this novel, zaniness and all, and have already gotten my hands on one of Coggin’s three other mysteries—Penelope Passes, or Why Did She Die? (1946).


By the way, although Who Killed the Curate? was published in 1944, it is set—like many other WWII-era novels, in pre-war times, at Christmas, 1937.  This must have made it a perfect choice for war-weary readers in search of pure, joyful escape, and it’s still a perfect choice for a Christmas escape. As the weather in San Francisco in late December can, at best, only approximate winter by being chilly and wet, and is equally likely to feel like June (Armistead Maupin famously had his Tales of the City characters sunbathing on Christmas Eve), it never feels all that much like Christmas for someone who grew up amidst snowdrifts and ice storms, so I have to seek my Christmas cheer where I can find it!

Interestingly, however, Coggin doesn’t totally erase the war from the novel.  She allows the approach of war to be mentioned on a few occasions, most memorably (for me, at least) in this discussion of possible activities for the Guides:

"As you all know, a shield is offered each year for the company which gains the highest number of marks in a competition. This year it was thought that the competition should be based entirely on the Second Class Test."


"I think it should all be on First Aid," suggested somebody else, "especially gas masks, and what to do in air raids."

"I think it would be a pity to mix the Guides up with anything like that," said Miss Oliver, wriggling as she spoke. "After all, it is an international movement, and I think we should keep ourselves out of a war."

"I wonder if the hostile aircraft will know that we don't want to be mixed up with them?" said Diana, thoughtfully. "They may not be able to distinguish Guides and non-Guides from the air."

I could quote the clever repartee of Coggin’s characters until the whole novel was contained in my blog post, but I will restrain myself.  If you haven’t been put off by the zany quotes included here, there’s plenty more enjoyment to be had in the full novel.  Just be aware of the potential annoyance that stray giggles and snorts may cause to spouses and family.

18 comments:

  1. Okay, I was tempted, and then this....

    "...I think we should keep ourselves out of a war."

    "I wonder if the hostile aircraft will know that we don't want to be mixed up with them?" said Diana, thoughtfully. "They may not be able to distinguish Guides and non-Guides from the air."

    This is for me, for sure. Dignified and decorous investigations be damned.

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    1. It's really perfect brain candy, Susan (or in this case Christmas candy).

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  2. I have this tbr but hadn't realised that it was set at Christmas. We're not expecting snow & sleet in Melbourne either so a little English wintry murder sounds like just the thing to create a Christmassy mood.

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    1. Oh, to be next to a warm fire with a good book and a blizzard raging outside! But alas wintry Christmas reads will have to tide both of us over, Lyn!

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  3. Love your blog above all other book blogs. Please keep entertaining us!

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  4. This sounds exactly my cup of tea; and as I am in UK, looking with some trepidation at the jet black cloud moving swiftly but surely into place over my office, it seems snow and sleet may well be on the agenda for today. Will seek out a copy immediately.

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    1. I hope your storm wasn't too bad, Sarah. I was watching video of some of the weather battering the UK and feeling that our panic in San Francisco this week over what was little more than a good long rain was even more ridiculous than I already thought it was. Stay warm and dry!

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  5. Ew... Scott, be careful what you wish for. Warm fire, check. Good book, check. Blizzard raging outside???? Don't even think about it. Let's say, a light blanket of snow covering the ground, and the shovelling is all done.

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  6. Flashback to a few weeks ago.... Thanks, Scott, for your suggestion of Joyce Grenfell's memoirs, The Time of my Life. It just landed in my mailbox today.

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    1. Hope you enjoy it Susan. Let me know what you think!

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  7. Scott, I've had my eye on this book for a long time. I know I have to have it now. I love silly! Have you read any of Constance & Gwenyth Little's mysteries they are wonderful too.

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    1. I have two novels by the Littles on my TBR shelves, Peggy Ann, but haven't got to them yet. Now I know they're something to look forward to!

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  8. I found this book in a second-hand shop in Santa Monica in June, two years ago. I spent the rest of my holiday reading the book, while lounging around the pool. You can bet that once I got home, I tracked down the other 3 books in the Lady Lupin series and gobbled those up as well. I was very sorry to say good-bye to the characters once the series ran out. By the way, I found your site months ago and have been 'lurking' ever since. I get a kick out of reading your blog and have tracked down some of the authors that you mentioned and found them to be a great read.

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    1. So glad you're here, lurking or not. Glad to know that the rest of the Lady Lupin novels are worthwhile too. Thanks for un-lurking!

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  9. I'm also glad that I finally decided to un-lurk. And I'm also on the lookout for the Joyce Grenfell book as I'm a fan of her film work.

    Betty

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