I've always been a big fan of opening paragraphs or opening pages that show the author really means business—that grab you by the throat, tell you what you can expect from their novel, and, effectively, tell you to be off if you don't like it. There are a lot of great openings in literature, from The Great Gatsby to Pride and Prejudice. My favorite among those authors who qualify for my list is undoubtedly the distinctly odd opening line of Rose Macaulay's final novel The Towers of Trebizond:
"Take my camel, dear", said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
Makes me smile every time, and it also perfectly encapsulates the eccentricity and the major concerns of the novel.
Now, Harriet Rutland's opening for Knock, Murderer, Knock! (one of only three novels she published, all of which have just been released in ebook and physical book by Dean Street Press) might not be quite as brilliant as Macaulay's, but it certainly sets the tone and introduces the snarkiness and judgmental attitude of many of its (mostly elderly) cast of characters. And it also made me laugh right off the bat. When Andy starts rolling his eyes about my giggling, I know that a book is really genuinely funny. Here's Rutland's mise-en-scène:
Mrs Napier walked slowly to the middle of the terrace, noted the oncoming car, looked round to make sure that she was fully observed, crossed her legs deliberately, and fell heavily on to the red gravel drive.
"Just look at that old hag!" exclaimed Admiral Urwin, chuckling.
"A bloomin’ acrobat, that’s what she is," muttered Matthews, the chauffeur, who had just managed to bring the car to a standstill in front of her.
Amy Ford, the chambermaid of the front corridor, leaned from an upper-window to shake a duster, and retired, convulsed with laughter, to call, "Molly, come here, do; she’s fallen down again. If that isn’t the fifth time this morning!"
And it goes on from there. With it's setting at the Presteignton Hydro, a rather outdated health spa in Devon, the book is populated mostly by cranky old folks whose primary concerns are the quirks of their health and making the most of the merest breath of scandal, and by medical and other staff who are peculiarly indifferent to whatever of their sufferings are not purely imaginary. There is hardly a kind word between any them—even between those with familial or matrimonial relations:
"Poor soul," remarked Mrs. Marston. "I am so sorry for her. I wish we could take her for a drive, but there’s no room."
"I suppose you’d like me to give up my seat to her and stay at home. Is that what you’re hinting?" demanded her husband.
"Certainly not, Charles. You know that I meant nothing of the kind. But she looks so lonely, and that husband of hers comes to see her so rarely. Of course, I know that he lives over two hundred miles away, but still...I hope that if I ever get like that you will have more consideration for me."
Mr. Marston made no reply, but his expression seemed to indicate that if such a calamity should ever befall her, he would cheerfully murder her.
And the handful of young people at the hydro are viewed with varying degrees of interest and hostility, such that when one of them is murdered—in a particularly gruesome and utterly far-fetched (but quite creative) way—they take it in their stride, though one character does commiserate by commenting:
"A dastardly crime, sir, a dastardly crime, and I hope you get the one who did it. Miss Blake was a lovely girl. Can’t understand why anyone should want to murder her. Now, if it had been one of those old hags in the Hydro, I could understand it well enough. I’ve often wanted to murder some of 'em myself."
Apart from the unusually acerbic tone of Harriet Rutland's characters, and the rather extraordinary and precise method of murder used by the killer, Knock, Murderer, Knock! also stands out from most detective novels because of its nondescript "detective." Not an amateur, per se, but not officially a detective either (and certainly not an imposing or authoritative figure), Mr. Winkley arrives at the hydro as a guest, and attracts attention but no suspicion from the gossipy residents:
At any other time Mr. Winkley would have passed unnoticed among the visitors to the Hydro, so unassuming and insignificant was his appearance, and so gentle and unobtrusive his manner. His skin was pink, his hair and moustache fair, the latter stained brown at the straight-clipped edge with nicotine, and matched by the skin between the first and second fingers of his left hand. His eyes were of a mild blue, and he blinked frequently as if he ought to have worn glasses. One felt that he should have been short and stout, and it was rather surprising to discover that he was well above the average height, and that his carriage was upright and soldierly.
Mr. Winkley describes himself as "a nonentity at the Yard" and his rather unofficial job (one pictures a dank basement office with poor lighting and a potent smell of mildew) seems to be to review cases that the bigshot inspectors have deemed hopeless or too vague or peculiar to get a handle on, to see if anything jumps out at him. It's never made very clear why he has been called into the crimes at the hydro, but the novel is all the more entertaining because of his rather nebulous position and his ability to keep a low profile.
He also compares himself entertainingly to some of the better-known detectives of the genre. As he prepares to explicate the crimes in classic Golden Age Mystery style, he warns his audience to keep their expectations low:
“I’m quite willing to tell you all that I know,” he said, “but I warn you that you mustn’t expect an exposition of brilliant deduction or sparkling humour. I’m not an Ellery Queen, nor a Peter Wimsey, nor do I possess the Gallic wit of Poirot.
In fact, Rutland has a great deal of fun at the expense of herself and other mystery writers, in the character of Mrs. Dawson, an apparently rather low-end thriller writer who is discovered, shortly after the death of Miss Blake, to have written in her notebook all the core details of the murder—before it happened.
The notes turn out to be for her third novel, on which she is hard at work despite the fact that neither of the first two have found a publisher. Although she's worried about the fact that her notes cast suspicion on her, Mrs. Dawson is also thrilled that her presence among the suspects in a gruesome murder case may lend her all the free publicity she needs to finally find success in her field.
Mrs. Dawson's chosen profession gives Rutland the opportunity for some humorous parody of herself and other mystery writers, as when Mrs. Dawson bemoans the public's craving for blood:
The trouble is that if I really based a book on Miss Blake’s murder and put all the Hydro people in it, nobody would believe that such a collection of oddities could ever exist. And in any case, one murder isn’t enough for the reading public nowadays; it would be better to have at least two...
You all know that I'm terrible at solving mysteries—or rather, that I'm so passive as a mystery reader that I never make any significant attempt at finding the solution. But bearing that in mind, I found the solution here surprising (if almost as implausible as the method of murder). So I imagine that any puzzlers among you will find it a highly satisfying read—as long as you don't require a lot of lovable, cuddly characters...
Sadly, Knock, Murderer, Knock! is one of only three mysteries Rutland published. That's the bad news. But the good news is that, after decades of being almost impossible to track down, all three of Rutland's novels are now readily available again, since Dean Street Press has added Rutland to their list of resurrected Golden Age women writers, following on the heels of Ianthe Jerrold and Annie Haynes. I'm looking forward to proceeding with her other two mysteries, Bleeding Hooks (1940, aka The Poison Fly Murder) and Blue Murder (1942). The former was enthuasiastically reviewed here, and the latter is particularly intriguing to me because of its wartime setting. Curtis Evans, who has again unearthed previously-unknown biographical information and written the introductions to these books, also wrote about them here, and his research will allow me to flesh out my entry of Rutland in my Overwhelming List and my Mystery List.