After my rave review quite a while back of what seems to be Mabel Esther Allan's earliest surviving novel, Return to the West, written in the 1930s but not published until 2013, and my enjoyment of Allan's early novel for girls Margaret Finds a Future (1954), which I briefly discussed here, I could hardly resist dipping my toe a little deeper into Allan's enormous (nearly 200 books!) body of work, and I've been quietly reading away on several more of her works.
The trouble is, I've been lazy about taking good notes on these books. So I'm taking this opportunity to discuss a few of them in brief. (But of course not too briefly, because "brief" isn't exactly my middle name, so I will still have to split this into two posts.)
After reading Margaret, I ordered two of the three mysteries that Greyladies has reprinted by Allan. Only the first, Murder at the Flood, was actually published in Allan's lifetime. After that title, the publisher went out of business, and apparently Allan never placed the other two, Death Goes to Italy and Death Goes Dancing, with an alternate publisher.
Honestly, it's not all that hard to see why. As mysteries, I didn't find either Murder at the Flood or Death Goes to Italy to be any great shakes. The latter I found stronger, in terms of the working out of the puzzle (though one factor playing into the character motivations—involving an adopted child—was absolutely bewildering to me), but it was still almost obvious enough for even a dunderhead like myself to sort out. And Murder at the Flood wasn't even that much of a challenge. So if you want clever, entangled plots and heavily-veiled but believable motives from your mysteries, you might just as well give these a miss.
On the other hand, most of you know I'm more interested in the detail, the characters, and the glimpses of ordinary life that mysteries often put front and center than I am in solving a puzzle. I have a sense that many of you approach your reading in similar ways, and if you do there are certainly some selling points for Mabel Esther Allan's mysteries.
For me, Murder at the Flood in particular had these selling points. Set in Marshton on the Norfolk coast during the terrible floods of 1953, it is rich in setting and in believable and entertaining characters, even if it's a little rough around the edges as a mystery. It follows Emily Varney, wife of the parson in Marshton, who, we learn, is secretly a successful mystery author, but she has wanted to keep this a secret from gossipy neighbors (some of whom are fans of her pseudonymous work). She now finds herself (as detective writers seem highly prone to do) in the midst of a murder investigation herself, and must work behind the scenes to stop the suspicions flying in all directions—including some directed at herself and her husband.
The flood waters arrive almost as soon as the novel is under way, and they arrive in appropriately dramatic fashion:
But when the door was opened it was Mrs. Sainty who burst in, clutching a shabby umbrella, a bulging string bag and an equally bulging plastic handbag that had seen much better days.
"Oh! Oh!" she cried, her grey hair wild and her unbecoming hat hanging over one ear, held by the stout hatpin that she always wore. "Oh, how I got up here no one will ever know! Never should have done if this terrible wind hadn't been behind me! I got the earlier bus because there was nothing on at the pictures and of course I went right round to the shop. No churchyards for me once it's dark! And I heard it coming as I passed round the back of the bus. Like an express train-believe me! But we should be safe here and thank the good God for letting me get here safely. There's a many will be dead this very minute.
"I looked back and saw it hit Mr. Abel-Otty's house. Like a bomb, it was, and one wall just seemed to crumble. They'll be up here, all those who can. But they'd be caught in their houses—they'd never even know!"
After the worst has hit, Emily observes the devastation from the vicarage windows:
The daylight was now almost gone, but there was just enough to make them all draw in their breath sharply. For where there had been miles of marshland there was now only a tossing, heaving sea. It broke not more than a hundred yards away at the foot of the hill that held Vicarage and church, and the little houses below looked like arks, half-submerged. Swiftly Emily moved to another window that gave a wide view westwards and inland. The water there was still moving, not perhaps as fast as an express train, but quickly enough to leave damage and death in its wake, giving only those people who had noticed what was happening time to quit their houses and farms and perhaps not even then.
Whatever other weaknesses Allan may have had as a writer, she could certainly describe a dramatic landscape.
The victims in both of these mysteries were those conveniently loathsome creatures, lacking in any redeeming qualities, that mystery writers love to use to avoid causing any upset to their readers when they finally get the axe (figuratively, not literally, in this case). They're convenient, too, because virtually everyone on the scene might legitimately have wanted them dead.
Fortunately, though, some of the other characters are more creative and interesting. In Murder at the Flood, there's the tortured 12-year-old poetry lover Betony Long, whom Emily tries to help with her troubled home life. And there are the requisite eccentric villagers who on one or two occasions provide some highly entertaining comic relief:
"Do we be murdered we may as well 'ave our cocoa first, that's what I say!" croaked the old woman.
"No one else is going to be murdered!" said the Colonel testily.
Mrs. Gotts gave him a knowing look and mumbled something about having heard that before.
Some may find the outcome of the mystery in Murder at the Flood surprisingly gruesome for what is basically a "cozy" mystery. But the book is otherwise a pleasant and highly atmospheric read. If you've never read Allan before, you might be better off starting with Return to the West or with one of the many books she wrote for children—her specialty far more than mysteries ever were. But if you're already a fan, you'll likely find these two titles an enjoyable few hours.
More recently, I've read the two new acquisitions I mentioned in my recent post on my compulsive shopping over the holidays. I started with Catrin in Wales (1961), which was a quite enjoyable read but perhaps, somehow, a bit of a disappointment. Its strengths are Allan's usual strengths: she's stellar at describing landscapes and historic sites and making one feel that one is right there looking at them too. In this case, the setting is a village outside of the town of Llangollen, and a historic priory dating back quite a few hundreds of years. (Sadly, there's no mention of the famous "ladies of Llangollen" or their house, which remains to be seen on the outskirts of town. Perhaps a lesbian couple from the 1700s was deemed a bit too edgy for a children's story?)
Catrin in Wales has much in common with Margaret Finds a Future—a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, somewhat at loose ends, who finds her future by helping out at a National Trust house and encountering the locals, some hostile, some friendly, and one, perhaps, a bit more than friendly. So perhaps I felt a bit too much like I had read the story before (since I more or less had).
That said, however, the novel passed the time for me quite cheerfully, and the virtual sightseeing it offers is completely enjoyable :
I came presently to what seemed to be the first of the Priory buildings—a building that might once have been a gatehouse, though now it seemed to be used as a barn. Beside it a footpath struck across a field, and it seemed a quicker way than the curve of the road. The grass was soaking wet, but I was wearing heavy walking shoes and did not mind.
Soon I could see the Priory much better, and it looked very impressive against the sharp pale cliff that ended the valley. I seemed to be looking at the whole length of the ruined church. There was a row of pointed arches and part of the central tower. At the western end of the nave were two more towers, one roofless and the other, apparently, whole. I knew almost nothing then about monastic ruins, but I was awed by the grandeur of the pillars and soaring arches.
After all, the footpath did not save me much walking, for it wound around to the eastern end of the ruins and brought me back to the road again, close to a great gateway in a high wall.
A cuckoo was calling nearby, but there were few other sounds and I felt that I had the place entirely to myself. Very slowly I walked under the gateway arch and found myself on a green lawn—the cloister garth, as I learned later. I drew in my breath sharply, for the dark young farmer had told me correctly. On the west side of the grass, and somehow absolutely part of the ruins, was an incredibly ancient-looking house. It was built of gray stone, and the roof was so thickly covered with bright green moss that the slates or tiles were almost invisible. The windows were mullioned and creepers hung down over the thick old door, which had an old-fashioned bell rope.
I was eating up this sort of detail, even if the story which followed was a bit less inspired (or original) than other of Allan's work.