Monday, November 24, 2014

another really obscure writer: Marjorie Alan -- Dark Prophecy

MS Mill, 1945
originally published in England as Masked Murder
188 pages


Talk about obscure -- while researching this author, all I could find on her is the following:

real name: Doris Marjorie Bumpus
born: 1905
number of books: eight, published between 1945 and 1956 

One would think that a crime writer with eight novels under her belt would be more widely known, but I've scoured the internet and have come up with absolutely nothing other than what I've written here, absolutely bupkus on Bumpus. If anyone at all has any information about this author, please share -- I would love to know more.

I found my copy of Dark Prophecy online -- a true 1945 edition with a little tiny blurb about the printing just before page one --
"This book is manufactured under wartime conditions in conformity with all government regulations controlling the use of paper and other materials."
-- a product of the War Production Board of the time, which 
"directed conversion of industries from peacetime work to war needs, allocated scarce materials, established priorities in the distribution of materials and services, and prohibited nonessential production.[2] It rationed such commodities as gasoline, heating oil, metals, rubber, paper[3]and plastics."
 So much for the history (although I do think it's kind of cool). Dark Prophecy, as I learned at the mysteryfile blog, falls under a subgenre I've never heard of called "Had I But Known." In fact, the review posted  there by William F. Deeck, says
Had I but known, I wouldn’t have begun the book. But unlike our heroine, I at least was wise enough not to undertake this perilous journey."
Well, I'm not so quick to shrug it off (I mean, seriously...what the hell kind of review is that?)  but Dark Prophecy reads like an English country-house murder mystery with a little hint of romance thrown in.  The main character of this story is Valerie Beech, formerly of Abbott's Rest, but now living in a bedsit in London. It seems that Valerie's father was up to his eyeballs in debt and sort of never told anyone; when he died, Valerie discovered that the family home had been mortgaged.  To try to cover the debt, she sold what furnishings she could, but  that didn't even come close to what the old man had owed. Now Valerie's a "hard-up business girl" in the city, so when she receives an invitation to a weekend house party at Wayfarers, the estate next to Abbott's Rest, she decides after some hedging back and forth to attend.  Wayfarers is the home of Frank and Carol Logan; Frank was once Valerie's fiancé until Carol stole him away. Because of Valerie's shame at losing Abbott's Rest and because of the marriage between Carol and Frank, she hasn't been back to that part of the country in a very long time, but she decides to go despite all of the past history.  The minute she gets on the train at Paddington she realizes "in a clear, definite premonitory flash," that she probably shouldn't go, but she does anyway.  Even though she's a bit uncomfortable at first, things go well for a while until hostess Carol receives a death threat in the mail. But even a death threat won't stop the festivities -- Carol has planned a lavish costume party. She dresses like a bride, wearing a black mask, and outfits Valerie in a "Moorish costume" with "wide mauve trousers and a yashmak," another word for a face-covering veil.  It seems like everyone is having a good time and Carol decides to play a trick on one of her male guests. She asks Valerie to exchange costumes with her -- and while Valerie is reluctant, she decides to play along with the gag.  While she's waiting for a signal to come downstairs and rejoin the party in her new garb, someone takes the opportunity to get rid of Carol in the room next door. Enter Inspector Ferris, who is a friend of one of the guests, and who has his work cut out for him with a large cast of potential killers -- and first on everyone's list, of course, is Valerie.

While the book's publication date is 1945, there's very little in the way of clues as to when the action in this novel actually takes place. My assumption is that it's set during the 1940s, however, I may be wrong here. There's pretty much nothing here that touches on World War II: the men at the house are all young, none of them have any wartime or post war-involvement  issues, and the war isn't even brought up anywhere.  While Valerie is obviously from an upper middle-class background and Wayfarers is filled with people who seem to be quite well off (at least one guest is an artist whose wife lives in London while he paints in the country), the only hint of any class issues is Valerie's father's financial problems that have set her apart from her former neighbors and sent her to London to work.

 Getting back to Deeck's review, I find it to be pretty harsh, considering that by his words " . . . unlike our heroine, I at least was wise enough not to undertake this perilous journey, " he probably never actually read it. True, the wording of the book will make you work a little harder while reading (but it's not nearly as stilted, for example, as something by John Dickson Carr), and true, the story takes pretty much forever after the murder to get to the solution. It's also a little too much romance for my taste, but to her credit, it's less simpering-heroine-type stuff than I expected.   When all is said and done, however,  Alan reveals that basic human nature doesn't really change underneath the veneer of  the well-kept lawns, the at-home tennis courts, and the Rolls Royces of the rich.

If  you can find a copy, and if you're a diehard classic British mystery fan or a fan of country-house murders  looking for another author to read, I'd say give it a try. I  plan on trying to hunt down some of her other works to add to my library of obscure women crime/mystery writers.  The fact that Alan is such an enigma actually appeals to me and makes me want to read more of her books.  Definitely not a novel for those who want a quick read.


  1. I happened upon this book years ago and really enjoyed it! To me it seems sort of Agatha Christie meets Mary Stewart...

    1. I've never read Mary Stewart, but I really enjoyed this one. Next up is Joanna Canaan -- another writer I've never heard of or read.

  2. I meant Joanna Cannan, not Canaan. My error.


I don't care what you write, but do be nice about it