Wednesday, March 25, 2015

JOANNA CANNAN, Death at the Dog (1940)

I had been meaning to read this mystery for quite awhile, taking place as it does in the opening days of World War II and making use of the atmosphere of war and blackout. My wish for the book was finally granted at Paperback Swap, so I took it with me on a weekend trip a while back and couldn't put it down. It has taken me forever to get around to writing about it, and I don't have a lot to scintillating things to say, but it's charming enough to deserve a mention, especially as I know many of you enjoy mysteries and/or novels set during the war.

Whether an avid mystery fan would find the solution to this one plausible or not is an open question, but the long opening scene of Death at the Dog, which takes place at the pub of the title and culminates in the bewildering murder, was for me a fascinating and realistic portrait—replete with well-placed clues—of an array of villagers going about their lives.  Such details of mundane day-to-day life made this one well worth the price of admission (had it, in fact, cost me anything at all).

The main character, apart from Inspector Guy Northeast—who also appeared in Cannan's first mystery, They Rang Up the Police (1939)—is Crescy Hardwick, a divorced "lady novelist" rather like Cannan herself. To what extent Cannan used autobiographical details in the character of Crescy I can't say, but there were a couple of amusing references to Crescy's writing, as when Eve, the co-owner of The Dog, says of Crescy, "She writes beautifully. It's their work that is themselves. What you meet is the bits that are left over."  Or when a Nurse comments of Crescy, "It isn't as though she was a poor person either, though I daresay she doesn't get much for her tales. They're not very exciting. I read one once. It was supposed to be a love story, but I found it very dry."  It must have given Cannan some satisfaction to include this "Everyone's a critic" kind of tidbit.

But Crescy is likeable enough for other reasons.  She amusingly tells Guy of the breakup of her marriage: "There was an argument. It was about an artist. Hugo, backed up by Miss Worthington, took his usual sane, smug view. Of course, it had been blowing up for a long time. I felt murderous about him anyway, and his remarks about Marie Laurencin were the last straw."

That the last straw in the breakup of their marriage was Hugo's presumably disrespectful attitude toward a painter might not be totally realistic, but it's certainly entertaining (and as an utterly trivial aside, I did recently tell a co-worker that I was so relieved that Andy was a mayo-not-Miracle-Whip kind of guy, as I didn't think I could bear to have Miracle Whip in my home—little things do take on great significance!). 

There's also a reference to what must have been one of Churchill's earliest, rabel-rousing speeches:

Presently the bells rang out; the one o'clock and four o'clock news bulletins were repeated and then Winston Churchill spoke. Afterwards, getting down to beer, they discussed him, only Valentine and David disapproving: a little cheap, said David; too bloodthirsty, said Valentine. That discussion petered out.

Here, the critiques are clearly a clever way of revealing the shallowness or lack of discernment of David and Valentine, as might be noted from the fact that the discussion "peters out" immediately after their comments.

Joanna Cannan
Oh, and one more quotation.  Crescy comments, too, on the subject of characters who cherish their martyrdom, which has been a favorite theme for me in the past:

"You can't always be thinking of other people," said Crescy. "Unselfishness is a most dangerous virtue. The martyr. I've worked my hands to the bone for you. While you've been enjoying yourself, I've been slaving on my hands and knees. If one does anything unselfish one ought instantly and automatically to forget it."

I couldn't have said it better myself!


  1. To my surprise, the Toronto Public Library has a copy -- dated 1940 -- and it's in circulation, unlike the rest of her books, which are in the Reference Stacks only.

    So I've got it on hold now.

  2. Scott's fame is spreading! This morning I received my copy of the Journal of the Angela Thirkell Society, the publication of the "mother chapter" in England, and there on page 2 it reads, "Another useful blog is Furrowed Middlebrow where Scott has compiled The War List, "a genre list devoted to British women writers who tackled themes related to the World Wars." Yay for our Scott!
    Tom Johnson

    1. Oh my! Thank you for sharing this, Tom. I'm honored to have been mentioned.


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