I’ve been in conversation with Brian Busby, of The Dusty Bookcase and Canadian Notes & Queries, about a number of authors of obscure Canadian mysteries, and he has kindly lent me his copies of Joan Walker’s East of Temple Bar (published in 1946 under her maiden name, Joan Suter) and Murder by Accident (published the following year under the pseudonym Leonie Mason). By the time these books were published in England, Walker had already (just) moved to Canada, where she married Major James Rankin Walker. Her early life as a war bride became the fodder for her Pardon My Parka, which won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour in 1954… but that is not (mostly) what this blog is about.
This blog is about mysteries. Most notably, British mysteries and how hooked I am on them as a genre. Not only do I devote most of my television viewing time to shows like Vera, Shetland, and Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple, but recently having contracted covid, I have not only binge-watched the entirety of the Endeavour – Morse – Lewis -verse but also revisited a number of favourite authors: Dorothy Sayers, Ruth Rendell, P.J. James, and of course Agatha Christie. So Leonie Mason’s Murder by Accident is in esteemed company. In the world of early Canadian women’s novels that I have read, though, it lies beside such questionable delights as Mabel Broughton Billett’s Calamity House (1927) and The Robot Detective (1932), and Mary Coad Craig’s The Two Decanters (1930), in much the same way as the Brokenwood Mysteries overshadows the trite Midsomer Murders or the dark, convoluted Hinterland.
In his review of Murder by Accident, Brian points suggests that its greatest failing lies in the title being “somewhat of a spoiler.” I have to admit that it turns out to have been an anti-spoiler for me. Brian’s comment led me to expect the initial poisoning to have actually been accidental, and I thus suspended my disbelief far more in reading than I usually would with mystery novels. “I don’t trust those mushrooms not to have been accidental… so let’s see what she does with this.”
What she does is weave a relatively successful mystery, albeit incorporating perhaps more than its fair share of tropes… but then, were the recognized elements of the British detective drama as ubiquitous in 1947 as they are now? So many of them can be attributed to Agatha Christie (certainly the drawing room conclusion scene, which Murder by Accident manages to avoid), and her first novel was published only in 1922.
As to tropes: Green Acres, the guest house owned by Christie and Henry Burton, is obvious (and yes, it not only was, but is a real thing: I have had the delightful experience myself); it also reminds me strongly of one of my favourite mysteries, Mary Stewart’s Wildfire at Midnight (1956), which also draws on the conventions of the “country hotel” trope, complete with love triangles, marital discord, and a femme fatale. Similarly, Mason’s cast of characters, like any Agatha Christie novel, spans the gammut, including the members of the Ladies’ Auxiliary, but missing the vicar and his entourage. Hotel guests Major Guy Warren, recently demobbed from the Intelligence Corp, and Angela Nash, the young, attractive secretary of the first murder victim – the acerbic author Anna Rawlings – combine forces and with the help of Guy’s friend Peter Martin, CID, unravel the mystery of what appear to be a series of coincidental accidents occuring at Green Acres. Other guests include the femme fatale, soon-to-be-divorced Lydia French; Anna’s toy-boy husband, Frank; and the greedy businessman George Heskett, who is attempting unsuccessfully to coerce the Burtons into selling the guest house.
And so the stage is set: but the story could go either way. That it turned into an enjoyable afternoon of reading is unquestionably for the same reason that the authors won two literary awards in the 1950s: Leonie Mason has a rather engaging narrative voice and facility with language. There is levity, too, although this is in no way a humourous book. The cabbie in the opening scene, who “had a private theory about bumps and potholes in the road” (5), and thus aimed for them to – successfully – increase his fare, reappears at times like Macbeth’s gatekeeper. The local poachers, when a shot is fired in the woods, are ”seething with indignation”: they “are far too good at the job to mistake Angela and Christie for a brace of pheasants” and not willing to become “the laughing stock of the place for their bad aim” (123). I enjoy a book, too, that includes as the final sentence of a chapter full of deep discussion of plots and motivations: “They queued up to use the boot scraper just outside the front door and they they went in to lunch” (183). One gets the sense that the irony of the prosaic action is intentional.
Overall, I’d have to say that I really enjoyed Murder by Accident, but I have to agree with Brian that the climax was highly disappointing. It was easy to anticipate, and the run up to the final scene included all of the information necessary, leaving no possibility of a satisfying denouement. We are just left there: “Oh. Okay then. Right. Next novel.”
Speaking of which: I now feel that I need to read Pardon My Parka (1953) and Repent at Leisure (1957), both of which deal with war brides. The opening pages of Murder by Accident hold some interesting comments about war brides, and I wonder how this fits in with Joan Walker’s biography. She married Ogilvie MacKenzie-Kerr in London in 1938, but had obviously divorced by 1946 when she married James Rankin Walker in Toronto. She had emigrated to Canada in April 1946, just as the novel was being published, so one wonders about her characters. Guy is glad he had avoided “making a fool of himself … with some unsuitable girl who had seemed to be the sun and the moon and the stars during a brief forty-eight hours’ leave” (11). And Lydia married during the war: “At first it was such fun. Leaves. … Dancing until all hours … and then when peace broke out, Rodney didn’t” (13). The tensions in the plot are underpinned by relationships built and destroyed during the war years, when men were deployed or on leave, and women stayed on the home front and… well, it depended, apparently, on the woman. But Joan Suter, Mrs. Ogilvie MacKenzie-Kerr, became a war bride herself. So where does that leave us? I’ll have to read on.